‘We will introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament,’ the Conservative Party's 2010 manifesto said. It was a promise they never kept. Six years later it’s a promise that’s completely obsolete, thanks to the EU referendum, although just now even that ‘ultimate authority’ is in some doubt, as the Supreme Court deliberates on Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. ‘Our approach to foreign affairs is based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy,’ the 2010 manifesto also said. ‘We are sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world. We will work patiently with the grain of other societies, but we will always support liberal values.’
In the conference hall the blue-heads have just been shown a video of Labour’s election ‘Edstone’, as a reminder of disaster averted. For a moment everything goes black, like a seance. The massed jam-makers and xenophobes sit in anticipatory rictus, a suckling pig waiting to gulp down the sweet nectar of platitude. But when the lights go up, it’s only the prime minister, on stage in Manchester to give his annual Tory pep talk.
‘This is Britain,’ David Cameron said in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference. ‘We don’t duck fights. We get stuck in. We fix problems.’ The thing on his mind presses upwards through the words at every point. Duck, stuck, fix... pigs?
This week the queen showed up in Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. Her trip has taken in excursions to Frankfurt and Bergen-Belsen, to which the British seem to feel a proprietary bond through its having been liberated by UK and Commonwealth forces. She looked bemused when her hosts presented her with a painting, based on a photo from 1935, of her sitting on a sub-Franz Marc blue pony in front of her father, George VI. Did the queen recognise him? ‘No.’ Links between Germany and the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha remain robust, despite a couple of regrettable misunderstandings during the last century. But for the vagaries of 18th-century Anglican politics, the queen might have spent a blameless life pickling cabbage in Dortmund. At Berlin’s Technical University this week, she was greeted by a robot imitating the royal wave. It underlines the fact that the queen could have her job done for her by an android.
Steve Hilton’s denunciation of the Civil Service earlier this month should be taken lightly. David Cameron’s former adviser, who in the early days of opposition leadership set his employer on a democratic bike while his shoes travelled behind by Lexus, has made a habit of attacking public servants for standing in the way of government ministers pleasing sectional profit. It is, the argument goes, undemocratic: power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats – the habitual drone of interested parties. This is the language used of the BBC by politicians compliant to the point of servitude with Rupert Murdoch.
Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.
David Cameron has been playing fast and loose with the term ‘Garden City’, almost as if he didn’t know that its origins lie in Victorian utopian socialism. The First Garden City (that is, Letchworth) was the realisation of ideas that Ebenezer Howard had set out in a small book in 1898, Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow. The following year Letchworth Garden City began to take shape, about thirty miles north of London. Every citizen who came to First Garden City Ltd was a shareholder; everyone in town was to be a part-owner of a large and valuable estate. One of the first investors was George Bernard Shaw.
There's nothing even remotely surprising about the Cruddas 'bluster', or the fact of Cameron's 'kitchen suppers'(the latest thing in cool dining) for top Tory party donors. Though the class aspect is a bit interesting. Peter Cruddas was offered the post of Tory party co-treasurer in June 2011, taking over from David Rowland, and sharing with Lord Fink, both high-level donors themselves who have both been present at dinners chez Sam and Dave. But, although Peter Cruddas's donation of £382,451 in (you guessed it) 2011 is well over the Premier League sum of £250,000 requirement for intimate invitations, Cruddas, unlike Fink and Rowland was not, as Cameron has carefully pointed out, one of the boys shooting the breeze around the prime minister's kitchen table.
The government's fifth columnist at the Guardian, Julian Glover, is to be David Cameron's new chief speech writer. He has apparently 'impressed the Downing Street team with his passion for the Coalition over the past year'.
In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa. This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic.
Rory Stewart may have been the first Tory MP into Libya after Gaddafi’s ousting from Tripoli (though let’s not forget the battle for Sirte is still going on), but he certainly wasn’t the last. David Cameron and William Hague were hard on his heels. The prime minister had a tricky line to walk as he addressed the crowds in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square (he and Nicolas Sarkozy were ‘greeted as heroes’, according to British state television): how to take credit for the regime change but at the same time downplay the level of foreign intervention? The former (former?) PR man handled it with his trademark plummy aplomb.
If you haven't read it already, may I recommend Nathaniel Tapley's 'Open Letter to David Cameron's Parents':
According to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech on 19 July, the government means to ‘foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action’. It was Peggy Noonan, one-time phrase-turner for the Gipper, who as George Bush senior’s speechwriter in the 1988 US presidential election campaign came up with the tag ‘a thousand points of light’ to lip-gloss the Bush I prospectus of hollowing out state provision and part-plugging the gap with charity. Bush’s thousand points of light were a bit like the starry welkin, but with the sun switched off. Cameron is now following this lead, the Big Society being the minimal state writ large. It has just floated the idea of soliciting charitable gifts from ATM users; will those be tax-deductible? It’s already cut back sharply on central grants to local authorities and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whacked university teaching grants, and farmed out parts of the social care budget to charities – whose government funding is also getting cut. Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well.
Bizarre lost causes, no.1 in an occasional series: the campaign to 'Keep Tony Blair for Prime Minister’. Failing that, they're keen for people at least to sign a petition to 'Ban Blair-Baiting’ for the duration of the Chilcot Inquiry. The petition has been online since the beginning of August last year. In seven months it's gathered a whopping 615 signatures. According to 'Keep TB for PM', the reason for this is a 'conspiracy of silence’ by the British press. Well, that's a charge they can level no longer – you heard it here first. Go on, sign it if you want to. Tell your friends. Let's see if we can't get it up to 616 by the end of the month.
Cyclists, unlike motorists or pedestrians, tend to notice other cyclists. When I was working as a bike messenger, Jon Snow was an almost permanent fixture of Gray's Inn Road, shuttling to and from the ITN building. I saw David Cameron, for all his eco-trumpeting, only once. He was going down Whitehall with the telltale wobble of the amateur enthusiast. There was a car following, though whether it contained a change of clothes and briefcase I couldn’t say. And then there was Boris Johnson. A regular pick-up from the Angel going to Burlington House on the Strand would send me down Rosebery Avenue, where I’d often see him emerging from Amwell Street. On a particularly slow and dismal day I chased him down and said: ‘Giz a job.’
David Cameron and I visited the Open University the other day, he to give a speech to the world, me to learn something about day-old chicks and biochemistry. Neither of us knew the other was going to be there. I was told at the reception desk to wait on one of the seats behind me and handed a label, one of those clip things I can never work out how to fix to myself. As I turned to go to the chairs, preoccupied with my label dyspraxia, someone grabbed me by my elbow and pulled me to the left. I dislike being grabbed so I pulled away and carried on the way I was going. But I'd failed to notice that the world had changed while I had my back to the room, and a semicircle of large chests in suits were claiming all the space for the man at their centre.