Tory conference fires starting pistol to succeed Cameron, with grandstanding from George, Boris and Theresa
The Conservative party conference has drawn to a close, and it’s been a lively few days for those politicians who think they are in the frame to replace David Cameron as party leader, and very possibly Prime Minister after 2020, writes Paul Dale.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, delivered a hard-right anti-immigration speech which went down a storm in the conference hall, but enraged pretty much everyone else.
In essence, Mrs May’s message was that because so many migrants are flooding into the country wages are being supressed and it is now impossible to build a cohesive society.
She proposed to send overseas students home at the end of their studies, thus depriving Britain of a steady stream of future doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and other professionals.
It seems unlikely that the irony of such a speech being delivered by the woman who not so long ago described the Conservatives as the nasty party dawned on the Home Secretary. If it did, she ploughed on relentlessly with the sort of comments that could sit comfortably at a UKIP conference.
We are approaching the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech which resulted in the Wolverhampton MP being sacked as a shadow minister by Ted Heath and fired the starting pistol for years of Tory turmoil over immigration. You have to ask how far things have really moved on for the Conservative party since 1968? Probably not very far, judging by Mrs May’s comments.
She even managed to achieve the seemingly impossible – a sharp rebuke to a Tory Home Secretary from the Institute of Directors, which accused her of “irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment”. Yes, the IoD thinks a Tory Home Secretary is too right wing. Whoever saw that one coming?
Her speech was, presumably, approved in advance by Downing Street, which is interesting in itself.
Mr Cameron told the conference:
If we opened the door to every refugee, our country would be overwhelmed.
Not that anyone is suggesting every refugee in Europe should come to Britain. As the prime minister conceded, twelve million people have been made homeless by the crisis in Syria, and only four per cent of them have come to Europe.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, delivered his usual conference stand-up comedian routine, although with perhaps a little more edge this year as befits someone wishing to portray himself as a serious replacement for Mr Cameron.
In a noticeable courting of the centre ground, Mr Johnson used his conference speech to warn welfare cuts should not harm “the hardest working and lowest paid”, which was news to Chancellor George Osborne who said the mayor had not discussed any concerns he may have with him beforehand.
Mr Osborne is generally regarded as the favourite to become the next Tory leader, but had to sit back and nod politely when David Cameron took the highly unusual step of announcing that Mr Johnson will be handed a ministerial job when his term as London mayor finishes next year.
Mr Cameron’s comments, in an interview with the BBC, came after he appeared to snub Mrs May in favour of Mr Johnson at the conference. The Prime Minister was not in the hall to watch the Home Secretary deliver her rampant anti-immigration speech although he did turn up in time to see Mr Johnson’s address minutes later.
Mr Cameron said:
I want to have the big figures in my team. That’s why I’m looking forward to Boris finishing his time as Mayor and coming into my team in Number 10.
Mr Osborne hit back at claims by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that low-income households stand to lose approximately £1,300 on average as a result of welfare cuts, declaring:
I don’t think you measure compassion and opportunity simply by the size of your welfare bill.
The welfare bill has gone up and up and up. It squeezes out other spending we could have on our health service and our education system.
I’m absolutely determined to deliver what I consider a very progressive policy which is sound public finances.
Whether Mr Johnson would describe Mr Osborne’s economic policy as progressive is a matter for debate. Even so, the Chancellor went out of his way to insist that although he and Boris may be rivals for the leadership, they remain close chums.
He’s been a brilliant mayor. I think he’s going to be a fantastic member of the Conservative team.
There then followed an intervention by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who up until Mrs May’s conversion to anti-immigration was generally regarded as the most right wing Tory in the Cameron team.
Duncan Smith, whose period as Conservative leader ended in tears, issued a “calm down” message and argued his colleagues should stop positioning publicly for the top role. He told a fringe event:
I would certainly say to them ‘honestly you have to get it under control’. My suggestion is that there is plenty of time for all that.
If the public sees that we are so venal that we assume that we have a right to be in power in five years’ time they will do their level best to kick us out.
And with a reminder that, despite Mrs May’s best efforts, Mr Duncan Smith remains right of right, he suggested cuts in child tax credits were to be welcomed because they would discourage parents from having greater numbers of children, which was a good thing.
That’s what the limit on child tax credit for more than two children is about – bringing home to parents the reality that children cost money and if you have more kids you have to make the choices others make and not assume taxpayers money lets you avoid the consequences of such choices.
That’s taking responsibility, and that’s fair.
Mr Cameron, delivering his leader’s speech, was in love-in mode, and why not given that this time last year many of the Tories in the room doubted his ability to win the General Election.
I love Britain. I love our history and what we’ve given to the world.
I love our get-up-and-go; that whenever we’re down, we’re never out.
I love our character; our decency; our sense of humour.
And to make certain everyone got the message:
I love every part of our country. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – we are one nation and I will defend our Union with everything I have got.
He wanted to let the conference know that, no, he really isn’t going to fight another election.
I can say something today that perhaps no Prime Minister has ever really been able to say before.
I’m starting the second half of my time in this job.
As you know, I am not going to fight another election as your leader. So I don’t have the luxury of unlimited time.
At this point, you might have expected gasps of ‘no, say it ain’t true’ from the audience. On the contrary, his retirement notice was greeted with stony silence, and perhaps the faintest of smiles from George, Boris and Theresa.
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