Andrew Whitaker: Trouble brews at Tory conference

Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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ON THE eve of the Tory conference, amid the triumphalism lie some uncomfortable truths, writes Andrew Whitaker

Dramatic happenings in the Labour Party in recent months have put the internal business of the Tories into the shade, with precious little news coming out of the blue corner.

But when David Cameron’s party gathers this weekend for its own party conference, just days after Labour’s own annual event, it does so fresh from winning a Commons majority for the first time since 1992.

In just a few days’ time the media spotlight will move swiftly to the party’s proceedings in Manchester - a city that has not elected a Tory MP since 1987 despite Cameron’s unexpected outright win in May and George Osborne’s talk of a northern powerhouse.

Just like 1992, when John Major led his party to an unexpected win, albeit it with a narrow Commons majority of 21, the Tory faithful will arrive for their annual conference in jubilant mood.

Tory politicians and conference delegates will be pretty pleased with themselves and it’s a fair bet there will much triumphalist talk and claims that the party is in government for a long haul and on the cusp of establishing a 1980s-style hegemony.

But in this year of political shocks, with the Tory majority win and Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent election as Labour leader, it’s possible things will not exactly go to script for Cameron whether it’s at next week’s conference or somewhere further down the line.

It was at the 1992 Tory conference in Brighton that the party leadership was hit by shockwaves as former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher’s self-styled political hardman in government, stole the thunder from the recently re-elected Major with a stridently anti-Europe speech.

Tebbit became known as the Chingford Skinhead (the suburban east London constituency he represented at Westminster) for his pugnacious style and was even characterised on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image as a leather jacket-wearing thug who would periodically headbutt other members of the cabinet.

But on this occasion, Tebbit delivered his own blow against Major with a direct appeal to the Tory faithful to pull out of the Maastricht Treaty on greater European integration, with a rhetorical question of “Do you want to be citizens of a European union?”

Tebbit embarrassed the Major government with his hardline anti-European rhetoric, that was received with rapturous cheers by the Tory conference, well and truly upstaging the Prime Minister of the day who had expected it to be his week after his election win.

Although not decisive, Tebbit’s intervention was symptomatic of the divisions over Europe that would go on to cripple Major’s government for the next five years.

Of course, that was all 23 years ago and it’s unlikely that the smooth public relations machine so strongly associated with David Cameron’s leadership will allow the current Prime Minister to be upstaged in a similar way. But the fact remains that for many Tories the issue of Europe and a desire to pull out remains fundamental to their political make-up as the goal of independence is for the SNP.

There are Conservative heavyweights like Michael Gove and Philip Hammond who have suggested they would be prepared to campaign for UK withdrawal from the EU in the forthcoming referendum unless there are major changes to Britain’s terms of membership.

For many in the Tory ranks, including MPs, the issue of Europe is something that, when mentioned, can make all reason go out of their heads.

For sure, the Tory conference will be as stage-managed as it’s possible for any party conference to be, but whatever triumphalist speeches come from the podium, the EU issue will be simmering away at fringe meetings and in hotel bars.

Again, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has meant there has been scant discussion of the EU issue for Cameron that could come to the fore if right-wing Tory MPs find themselves teaming up with Ukip to campaign for a No vote - a situation that would see them at odds with the Prime Minister.

Having said that, for Labour supporters, much of what comes from the official Tory conference will be hard to bear, with Cameron and Osborne bathing in self-congratulation following their election win.

There will be many stark reminders throughout the week that the Tories are in power for nearly five more years with more brutal austerity on the way, restrictions on trade union activity and a rush towards more privatisations.

It will probably serve as a reminder to many Labour-minded people that they underestimated Cameron, initially with good reason, thinking his failure to win a majority in 2010 meant that the prospect of an outright Tory win in 2015 for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century was a non-starter.

A former Labour MP, who failed to win a marginal seat in May after a five-year absence from Westminster, recently said to this columnist that Cameron was a kind of “political genius”, having being elected as Prime minister twice and with the prospect of being on the winning side of two referendums - last year’s vote against independence and the in-out EU vote should it go his way.

It would be foolish to deny that Cameron’s win in May was a major political achievement. Cameron and Osborne are a formidable political partnership and they show no signs of falling out in the way Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did - something that Labour would pay a heavy price for. But it’s worth putting things into perspective and pointing out that the 36.9 per cent share of the vote won by the Tories - just over a third of the total electorate - is not a resounding endorsement of Toryism.

It’s a figure that perhaps explains, a bit like in the aftermath of 1992, why it’s rare to meet anyone who actually admits to voting Tory.

Such a vote share also makes a compelling case for electoral reform - something Labour would do well to embrace now.

But as the champagne flows in Manchester over the coming days, the party should reflect that despite its victory there are now large parts of the UK where the Tories have very little presence including Manchester itself, a city where it last won an MP when Duran Duran last topped the hit parade.