‘Welcome to the rohypnol conference’
Emily Hill watched the Tories in Manchester swig fizz, dodge photographers and talk about as little as possible.
When David Cameron first wandered out of a knitwear catalogue to become Tory leader, he introduced himself as the heir to Blair. But now he’s got settled in, and the sexiest politician in the world turns out to be Stateside, he seems to be gunning to be the white Barack. Obama turned America blue with the promise of ‘change’, so Dave spent last week’s Conservative Party conference pledging to do the same here. It’s all going to be so very clean and shiny under the Tories – change you can believe in, beliefs you can change in, yes we can, no we can’t (tolerate Labour) – all brought to you by Bono (1).
Of course, Bono was letting his bleeding heart spatter Gordon Brown’s shirt sleeves not so very long ago – so that doesn’t seem very different. And, the big story of conference, Cameron’s decision to invite General Sir Richard Dannatt to be his ‘military adviser’, seems uncannily like a continuation of Gordon Brown’s political gift of GOATs (a Government of All the Talents) – a scheme which hasn’t met with much success. Of the four non-politicians Brown brought into government when he entered No10, only one now remains (2). ‘This sounded like a political gimmick’, raged shadow home secretary Chris Grayling in the immediate aftermath of the Dannatt announcement – seemingly under the impression that the general was the latest happy camper in Brown’s big tent rather than the new boy in the Tory team.
On arrival in Manchester, the first news that greeted me (gossip grubber for the Evening Standard) was the news that there was to be no news. A good conference was to be a dull conference and a great conference would be ‘transcendentally boring’ (3). So Chris Grayling making an on-air blooper was a rare malfunction in the march of the digitally re-mastered Tory army towards almost certain election victory. The viewer at home might be unsure as to why he’d want to vote for them, but would more likely change the channel, won over to the idea that it all looks very, very dull indeed.
So it was fortunate, on the ground, that party chairman Eric Pickles decided to claim publicly that the Tories should appear ‘humble’ and forgo champagne throughout – for it allowed for four days of fun pointing at Bolly-offenders. Shadow prisons minister, Alan Duncan, already in the stocks for complaining that MPs are being forced to live on ‘rations’, was busted – shock horror! – swigging the good stuff at the New Statesman party, as was David Willetts. The evening after – shlock horror! – David Cameron with champagne was papped by a photographer who, I hear, had to leave the party with the camera stuffed down his underpants.
A Mirror reporter then went above and beyond the call of duty, dressing up as a waiter and trying to drift into shot behind shadow chancellor George Osborne as he was giving a breakfast-time interview, carrying two flutes of champagne on a tray. Special Branch gave the reporter the once over (4). A Tory party worker was arrested after trying to steal a £150 bottle of fizz in the secure zone (5) while the bar at the Midland Hotel, from which the bottle went walkies, was a hive of champagne swigging. Some gave Pickles a nod by attempting to hide the bottles when photographers came snooping. Others broke the spirit if not the letter of the law by switching to Prosecco. On the train back to London, there were quite a few delegates so hungover from their champers they didn’t even stick around for Dave’s big speech. And who could blame them?
Veteran right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens probably didn’t hang around either. At a ‘dissident’ fringe meeting of the Bruges Group, speaking alongside the Daily Telegraph’s arch new-Tory hater, Simon Heffer, and former MP Barry Legg, the trio railed against much the same thing that Mick Hume has, less histrionically, pointed out on spiked: that the new breed of robo-MP has little to no grassroots support (6).
Legg pointed out that fewer people had voted for the nice young wonk, Chloe Smith, in the Norwich North by-election earlier this year than had voted for the 2005 Tory candidate when the party was (in Theresa May’s words) still ‘nasty’ under Michael Howard. Heffer did some crowd-pleasing non-rivers of blood Enoch Powell quotes.
But most perplexed was Hitchens. ‘Ladies and gentleman’, he began. ‘Comrades! As I believe the Conservative Party now addresses you… This is a dissident meeting – an insurgent meeting if I have anything to do with it… Boris Johnson was invited for a drink by David Cameron last night to discuss their differences over Europe. Dave put rohypnol in Boris’ champagne. He intends to put rohypnol in all your champagne. This is the rohypnol conference! You’re all being systematically date-raped into the delusion that there is anything conservative about this Conservative Party.’ He then went on to urge everyone in the room not to vote at all in the next General Election. ‘I am going to have lunch in France. Just do the gardening. Clean behind the fridge. Anything other than voting for the Conservative Party.’
I’m no fan of Hitchens and his pent-up angst on the subject, but it’s hard to disagree that there’s something disconcerting about this new Toryland, a political landscape that is largely featureless and where all anyone’s really scared about is frightening the horses, wherever they might be… Rather than inspiring the party faithful or actually pushing forward any compelling reason to vote for them, the Conservative Party conference was all about who was drinking what and whether a wild-eyed Michael Crick would yet be able to trip Kenneth Clarke into saying anything remotely interesting on the matter of the Lisbon Treaty.
Meanwhile, on the podium, giant sums of government debt were fiddled about with to polite applause, as Britain braces itself to stop being a nation of shopkeepers to emerge as a nation of bankrupt shopkeepers governed by accountants. Even the delegates in the hall seemed oddly unenthused and disconnected – really keen to talk about Europe, if only anyone would let them, and utterly baffled by the notion of ‘progressive Conservatism’. As another fringe speaker, Peter Oborne, pointed out, that’s an oxymoron.
Rather, Manchester seemed like a practical example of Brendan O’Neill’s textbook suggestion that we are heading into an era in which ‘political parties will be finally emptied of both politics and anything that smells like party spirit’ (7).
Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume said the Tories have changed – for the worse. Elsewhere, he pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Back in 2005, he argued that David Cameron was a non-Tory leading the Tory party. Rob Lyons reckoned Cameron’s Tories are the heirs to Blairism. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, Brendan O’Neill called for positive politics. Nathalie Rothschild explained what ‘politics of behaviour’ with a Tory twist looks like. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.
(1) Bono makes surprise appearance at Tory conference, Guardian, 8 October 2009
(2) Another blow for Brown as health minister Lord Darzi quits Government’s ‘team of talents’, Daily Mail, 15 July 2009
(3) Tories Hope For A Boring Week, Sky News, 5 October 2009
(4) The fizz, the fuzz and the wizards of Oz, Financial Times Westminster Blog, 7 Ocotber 2009
(5) Tory accused of stealing champagne: I was foolish, Evening Standard, 8 October 2009
(6) The Tories have changed – but not for the better, by Mick Hume, 7 October 2009
(7) The Tories and the tyranny of anti-politics, by Brendan O’Neill, 22 August 2009
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