The born-again Brexiteers of the Conservative party have a plan – unfortunately it’s as lo-tech and whimsical as the chocolate biscuit mill in Bagpuss
To the Conservative party conference – or Lannisterfest, to use its street name. The event took place in Birmingham and there was only one question on everyone’s lips: which idiot put the word COUNTRY in the platform backdrop? “A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE,” it read. But the first rule of political backdrops is that you never put the word COUNTRY in. If you do, it’s as if you’re actively begging photographers to crop out the last two letters and position the speaking minister’s head to obscure the O, which duly happened with Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox and various other of the leading countries. Forgive me – various other of the country’s leaders.
I am, of course, only kidding. The actual big question here was what Brexit meant to various senior Tory figures, and the big answer was still: whatever they want it to. Leaving the European Union remains a political Rorschach blot, in which some will see freedom of movement/a bat, and others will see exit from the single market/the female reproductive organs.
Either way, everyone at conference was either a Brexiteer or a Brexiteer-come-lately. With about two exceptions, no one cared to admit to ever having been a remainer. I haven’t seen this much shameless Tory revisionism since Nelson Mandela died and everyone declared mistily that he had always been their political hero, with several presumably hoping photos of them wearing Hang Mandela badges would never surface.
Someone once said that if the Labour conference made you wonder why you were a member of the Labour party, the Conservative conference answered the question. For the vast, vast majority of Britons who pay subscriptions to neither party, though, attendance at any of these things is a mystery.
So who goes to Tory conference? There are the party big beasts, of which there are ever fewer, and a cavalcade of junior ministers who would be less anonymous if they were in a witness protection programme, and who loiter around the Sky News mobile studio making pretend mobile phone calls in the hope a producer will recognise them and give them three minutes’ seatwarming before Michael Fabricant comes along. There are also lots of local councillors who clap all references to themselves, paying members who must know the parliamentary party would rather staple its eyelids to the floor than risk them voting in a leadership election, and approximately 2,000 young men in the same suit who look as if they doodle “Theresa Bae” on their exercise books and regard American Psycho as reasonable masturbation material. If you’re tempted to go next year, it costs 520 of your rapidly nose-diving pounds, excluding hotel rooms, meals and crystal meth.
The speeches were, in the main, so neuron-stealingly dull that they confirmed suspicions that Theresa May is trying to make her government deliberately boring, in order that as few people as possible can bear to pay attention to all the impossible things it has to do, and all the unpleasant things it wants to do.
The only thing approaching cut-through will have been the relentless immigrant-bashing and May’s own much-applauded effort mugging off the cossetted elite in favour of the left behind, even though she must know that every fringe event here was simply a prosecco reception with a platitude attached. Hers wasn’t the greatest hypocrisy, of course – that honour surely belonged to the home secretary,Amber Rudd, who wants companies to be forced to disclose how many foreign staff they employ, even though it took a data leak to reveal that at least two Bahamas-based firms employed her as a director.
In the conference exhibitors hall, the high-end merchandising opportunities appeared to have been conceived as a self-satire: there were two tailors measuring up for handmade suits, no fewer than four “bespoke jewellery” stalls, and various opportunities to buy art. As far as other attractions went, simulators were big this year. There was a motor-racing one just outside the main conference venue, a pheasant-shooting one inside, and a terrifyingly realistic one in the main hall where Liam Fox was the international trade secretary.
Clearly, the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, must have said something during his time-bending eternity on the podium. But what? I dimly recall him droning on about “The Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine … Two great projects that can be emulated across Britain. Indeed, I suspect the limiting factor may only be our ability to think up snappy titles for new regional projects …” How about the Wessex Cobblers Generator? The East Anglian Doctor Incinerator? Mainly, though, if you wanted to safely hide the exact sequence of numbers for the nuclear codes, inside a Hammond speech would be the place to start.
Elsewhere, not content with plastering their slogan “A country that works for everyone” over all available surfaces within the cordon sanitaire, the Tories rolled it out to new shores of meaninglessness. Andrea Leadsom called for “an environment that works for everyone”. James Brokenshire hosted an event entitled: “A Northern Ireland that works for everyone.” In some cases, the centrally installed software simply malfunctioned. “We must make breakfast … Brexit a success,” floundered the leader of the Welsh Conservatives.
There was, however, one notable trend. Back even when he was London mayor, Boris Johnson had a failsafe shtick that was aped by the likes of Liz Truss, and which he was still flogging this week. We’re so perfectly placed as a global trading nation, this runs, that “we sell tea to China, TV aerials to Korea and, my friends, we export French knickers to France!” This riff has now also been nicked wholesale by those we might politely term lesser orators. Consider Liam Fox – pushing for such a hard Brexit that it was like a Viagra ad every time he opened his mouth – who declared (for the third time in a week) that the UK sold “tea to China, wine to France, and boomerangs to Australia”. Fox had taken the stage right after Leadsom, Britain’s luckiest escape, who had trilled wide-eyed: “We’re selling coffee to Brazil, sparkling wine to France and naan bread to India.” We were even, Andrea smiled excitedly, selling “bottled English countryside air for up to £80 a go”.
Look, no one wants to let daylight in on tragic. But even cursory research reveals that the coffee claim amounts to a very small hill of beans we import from Brazil, then process and export back to Brazil in a deal worth the titchiest fraction of the coffee we buy in. The boomerang triumph can be traced back to a single company in Leighton Buzzard whose own general manager is at pains to stress“Boomerangs are obviously not exactly a huge market”, while the naans-to-India bit is a reference to one baker in Dunstable who has invested in a factory outside Mumbai. Less than 2% of wine exported to France is English – around £940,000 worth – while we import £881m of the French stuff. Arguably, the crowning achievement of this vision of a post-Brexit trade bonanza is the guy selling the £80 jars of “fresh air” to the Chinese. He turns out to be a self-styled “air farmer” with a website so pretentious it reads like a Chris Morris hoax, and who will only admit to having flogged around 300 units of his nonsensical product.
So those are your big bucks post-Brexit beacons, ranging from a boomerang-maker who would very much like you to commute your expectations, to some hipster chancer who has sold fewer than 300 empty jars to Chinese ironists. What the hell do you say? Other than: is that the plan, secretaries of state? Please tell me that isn’t the actual plan, because if it is the plan, then I changed my mind. I want the blue pill. In the name of sweet oblivion, GIVE ME BACK THE FUCKING BLUE PILL.
Even the Department for International Trade wanted a piece of the inaction, enlivening Monday morning by tweeting out an exciting trade opportunity. “France needs high-quality, innovative British jams,” this read, “& marmalades.” Unfortunately, our highest profile exponent of marmalade is an illegal immigrant bear likely to fall foul of the next Home Office clampdown. He will join the foreign NHS doctors, whom May seemed to put on notice of expulsion just as soon as we train up some British people. Let the prime minister be very clear, foreign doctors: you are now saving lives in the last chance saloon.
Ramming home this theme was Fox, who positively relished uncertainty over the post-Brexit right of EU citizens, declaring: “That’s one of our main cards.”Suggesting our other cards are the eight of cups, The Hanged Man, Master Bones the Butcher’s Son and Grant Shapps’ business card.
If only he had told May sooner about our great hand, because she had already knit herself into the noblest of Tory traditions by chucking away her single negotiating advantage to appease her own Eurocidal maniacs. May began the week by stating that the UK government would definitely trigger Article 50 before the end of March next year. My theory is that she’ll do it on the exact night that month when the clocks go forward, when the next day always seems so much longer and brighter, and there is a psychological sense that you are emerging into sunnier times. Call it the BST bounce, and hope it gets you through to the Wednesday.
Biggest Tory conference star among the faithful? At present, Johnson’s magic mirror still tells him he is the fairest of all, but the suspicion must be that one day he will see Ruth Davidson’s face smiling insolently back at him. The Scottish Tory leader is very much the coming draw, inevitably chosen to warm up for May’s climactic speech, but whose open distaste for Johnson saw her gift us three of the more amusing slapdowns of the summer. The first was during the Question Time that came live from Wembley, when she interrupted some military posturing by Boris to sniff: “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” The next saw her decline to even break stride as a reporter asked her about Boris crashing out of the race to succeed David Cameron, only smiling lightly that, “Leadership is hard. It’s not for everyone.” And the third was Davidson’s majestically off-colour joke to a Westminster reception, which characterised the post-result landscape thus: “Labour is still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying their post-coital cigarette. After withdrawing our massive Johnson …” I’m not saying the Tory crowds don’t still love Boris. But all the above moments do slightly remind me of the bit in Blades of Glory where Will Ferrell throws off his jacket and growls at his privileged blond rival: “Step aside, homeschool. There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Still, at least that’s all the aggro the Tories have to worry about. On Sunday, when May pre-emptively shafted the Brexit negotiations, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s only media intervention was a tweet: “@LabourFilmFest is coming to the North West for the 1st time. Find out about the great films they’re showing …” On Monday, as Fox and Leadsom painted a vision of UK trade slightly more lo-tech and whimsical than the chocolate biscuit mill in Bagpuss, Corbyn’s only media comment was a tweet: “@LabourFilmFest is coming to the North West for the 1st time. Find out about the great films they’re showing …” On Tuesday, as Rudd suggested rounding immigrants up on to lists and Fox informed EU residents that they were a bargaining chip, the Labour leader’s only media comment was a tweet: “@LabourFilmFest is coming to the North West for the 1st time. Find out –” Well, as Harry Hill would say, you get the idea with that one. It was only on Wednesday, when the clamour from Labour competents for something – anything – became so overwhelming, that he finally slid out a muddled written statement. No wonder you couldn’t move for Tory secretaries of state guaranteeing things till 2020 – aid money for Wales, farm subsidies, science funding … It all felt the setup to a spectacular joke, when three minutes after the election they pull the rug and explain just how deeply in the mire we are. Ah well. Other than that, Jeremy, how was the movie?