Political party gatherings in the UK are no longer conferences, but telly-fodder rallies. The members show up, apparently of their own volition, and sit there like mannequins, a studio audience tasked to chortle, applaud, boo, pout concern and ovate on cue. As it’s going out in real time, it has to be got right in the first take. Even Triumph of the Will had to fake up some sequences in post-production.
In a banner over the entrance to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and plastered across the lectern, was the legend ‘Britain Can Deliver’. When and why did this intransitive, wholly generic use of deliver catch on, as if the UK were a nation of milkmen or obstetricians? Whether delivery is welcome rather depends on what’s being delivered. One can imagine a Tory conference anno 1770 under the strapline ‘Britain: Delivering Slavery throughout the Empire’. In his speech David Cameron had the gall to puff the fact that Britain had ‘led the world’ in abolishing slavery, having practised it with gusto for 150-odd years beforehand, and tossing in the towel only after losing the American colonies.
Unlike the Labour floor show, where the leader comes on some time before the ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Jerusalem’ bring the party to a close, at the Conservative conference the party leader’s speech now ends the grisly spectacle. So it fell to David Cameron to bring conference to climax – always a tricky job when conference has hardly got over climaxing the day before. In the old days, the blue-heads from Frimley used to go all yoghurty over Michael ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine. It didn’t stop them reverting to type next day when Margaret Thatcher got up to hymn the Führerprinzip. But Cam is not Thatch, and the blue-heads know it.
They, or their grandchildren, have another darling: a maverick blond with a chequered sexual history, who for all that has laid claim to the status of national treasure. Sir Jimmy Savile, for various reasons, was not available to address the conference, though his love of money and the royal family would have fitted in well. But even as Savile’s tombstone was being ground up for landfill, the crowd seemed happy with comrade Boris. The prime minister had to join the mannequins for the mayor of London’s turn, cameras trained on his every response to Johnson’s sallies. It wasn’t one of Boris’s best efforts, but he’s passed the point where the mere vagaries of utterance sully his reputation. Like the hectic in Dave’s blood he rages. But for Cameron, unlike King Claudius, sending the antic prince to exile in England isn’t really an option.
How he must wish it were. Boris woofed. The mannequins went yoghurty. All this limited Cameron’s options the next day. Putting on a tow-coloured wig and trying to match Johnson gag for gag he’d have been sure to lose. Easier, then, to beat the patriotic drum: Britain, ‘still the greatest country on earth’, gave humankind DNA, the computer, beat the Nazis – single-handedly it seems – and bestowed on the world its ‘finest head of state’. ‘We know Britain can deliver because we’ve seen it time and again.’ Yes. Britain’s delivering: zero GDP growth; a bungled West Coast rail franchise; benefit cuts; and aspicating privilege in a jelly of opportunity. The speech harped on about how Britain was on the ‘rise’ (a term used more than 20 times). The PM ceased; and as one, obedient to a higher call, they rose.