Never despair of finding diamonds in the dust. Sir Eric Pickles, until 2015 Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, isn’t the sort of figure from whom one expects or desires fragments of autobiography, but, introducing his internal review of the Conservative Party’s performance in the 2017 election, he offered a gem, unasked:
In my Whitehall office as a minister, over my left shoulder, facing visitors, was a photograph of Che Guevara. It was there to remind me that, without constant vigilance, the cigar-chomping Commies will take over once again. The Labour Party Conference should remind all of us that such vigilance is needed more than ever.
There are 126 recommendations in the Pickles report – most of them to do with the foolishness of calling an election that your party is not expecting and for which it is not adequately prepared – but all of them are left in the dust, as it were, by the shining fact of the Che on the Wall. All week I’ve been trying to visualise aides, civil servants, earnest, well-briefed delegations from the Local Government Association sitting down in the office of the secretary of state only to be confronted with the bearded revolutionary. How did it work? Did Sir Eric wait to be asked what the picture was doing there or did he explain straightaway? No doubt we will have to wait for the memoirs. But in the light of the Tory Conference, another, more unnerving conclusion presents itself: that the Che on the Wall is fast becoming the central motif of Conservative politics.
‘There are a few countries around the world that have held out against the global trend to market economies and rising living standards,’ Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, noted during his speech in Manchester, ‘but it is only a few. Like Cuba, which I visited last year as foreign secretary, where, curiously, I found cows in the fields but no milk in the shops … That’s what socialism does to a market.’ Not content with having already given a potted history of the 1970s to an audience largely made up of survivors of the era, he went on to cite Zimbabwe and Venezuela as further object lessons. ‘It’s all very sad,’ he said, of Labour’s shift to the left, ‘because for 35 years we had a broad consensus in British politics about our economic model … As this model comes under renewed assault, we must not be afraid to defend it.’ Later in the day, he was more candid, telling a private dinner for business leaders that ‘we do not expect PLCs to support political parties. But I do expect them to support the case for the market, and I do not expect business to pull its punches in making the case for the market economy … You have to decide to combat this menace or collaborate with it and let it get into power.’ ‘We want a country with a government that works for everyone: Corbyn wants a Britain where everyone works for the government,’ Boris Johnson quipped the next day. ‘This battle of ideas is not lost in memories of the 1970s. It is back from the grave, its zombie fingers straining for the levers of power and that is why we cannot rest.’ ‘The free market,’ proclaimed the beleaguered Theresa May, ‘remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might. Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain has been so stark.’
What is Che actually doing on the wall? Is he frightening the Tories, or are they using him to frighten us? If they are scared and nobody else is, that’s a scary place for them to be. The election result indicates that many voters aren’t apprehensive at the prospect of a Corbyn government, while polling confirms that a substantial majority are in favour of the nationalisation of gas, water, electricity, mail and rail. The 2015 election was won thanks to the Tories’ ideological inflexibility: the virtues of austerity were insisted on, and Ed Miliband’s proposed price cap for the energy markets was attacked as Marxist nonsense. Now price caps are May’s flagship policy, and she and every other senior Tory, Hammond and Johnson included, felt obliged to follow their paeans to the market with an acknowledgment that in fact it isn’t working that well.
But admitting that Corbyn has a point blurs the ideological battle lines at the same time as it exposes the weakness of the Tories’ proffered solutions – the council housing ‘boom’ promised in May’s speech, for example, quickly turned out to mean five thousand new homes a year, a fraction of what’s needed. In other words, they’re giving too much away, and not enough. Another problem is that Corbyn doesn’t fit the part allotted to him. Not only is he not Che (a plus and a minus, you could say): he has mutated into a rather reassuring political presence. Watching his speech at the Labour Conference in Brighton a few days earlier, you’d have been hard-pressed to call him a great orator, but harder-pressed to call him a revolutionary rabble-rouser. His vision of a country degraded and held back by the exhausted orthodoxies of the Thatcherite political settlement, framed around the Grenfell Tower disaster, had a dignity difficult to twist into caricature. He was affable, amusing, engaged or solemn at all the right moments, like an experienced after-dinner speaker, or a particularly successful father-of-the-bride. Mostly he inspired confidence, which he hadn’t before.
Party conferences, by their nature, are for true believers, though the nature and location of the truth is often in dispute. There is a rich tradition of grumbling antipathy between leaders and members, dating at least as far back as Lord Salisbury, the first prime minister to have to engage with an active organisation (‘Died of writing inane letters to empty-headed Conservative associations’ was the line he suggested for his epitaph), and predicated on the leaders’ (usually correct) belief that they know what’s best for the party and the members’ (usually correct) intuition that this means ignoring many of their most cherished concerns. At the Tory Conference, the Brexit-hungry membership, like so many seals, gulped down the slippery assurances of Boris Johnson (who even managed to solve global warming in one sentence) and queued down corridors for the chance to hear the gospel as delivered by Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ideologue so implausible he changed the last four digits of his phone number to 1649 to commemorate the execution of the martyr Charles I.
Things used to be different. In the 1980s, Harold Macmillan worriedly contrasted his understanding of how party conferences ought to work with the unfamiliar reality ushered in by Mrs Thatcher: in the old days, he said, ‘we used to sit there listening to these extraordinary speeches urging us to birch or hang them all or other such strange things. We used to sit quietly nodding our heads and when we came to make our speeches we did not refer to what had been said at all. They gave us good ovations and that was that. But watching her at the party conference last week, I think she agrees with them.’ Tony Blair must know the feeling. The Labour Conference, for so long a squashed, sat-on affair, was this year remarkable for the degree of good feeling uniting members and the leadership – always excepting a thinning middle stratum of recalcitrant MPs – and for the frequent transit between the conference proper and ‘The World Transformed’, the activist-led festival of ideas which ran in parallel and hosted discussion on subjects ranging from post-capitalism and the future of socialism to Labour’s attitude to the global economy and the best strategies for winning a marginal seat (there were also two raves and a pub quiz hosted by Ed Miliband). These are early signs that the previously nebulous idea of Labour as a ‘social movement’ may be crystallising into a reality; certainly there was an unusual air of intellectual energy and creative enthusiasm around the conference.
Conferences come down to issues of belief in another way too. They are receptacles, simultaneously cloistered – speeches, votes, meetings, gossip – and spacious: all those buildings, bars, cameras, journalists. We look inside, or listen in, and make a judgment. It’s rare that we step away with our preconceptions seriously changed, because conferences usually play out on a larger scale (and on stage) narratives already in motion. Labour in Brighton were energetic and optimistic; the Tories in Manchester were divided, directionless, harassed by the Johnson ego. We knew all that already. But conferences do have the effect of putting a whole party under a magnifying glass. And when the party leader makes his or her speech, they fill our whole field of vision. That’s why May’s speech – billed as the speech of her life – has been seen as such a disaster. Under pressure in TV interviews, she has a habit of sinking between her shoulders; on the platform, thrown by the serial idiot Lee Nelson handing her an oversized P45 (which, fatally, she took), she retracted into her throat. A disruption, a recurrent cough, a letter dropping out of the slogan glued to the backdrop behind her; on any other day, any other sort of occasion, none of it would have mattered. On this day, this occasion, it may just have killed her career (even before the speech had ended, the Twitter commentariat had decreed that she would never fight another election); as I write there is talk of a coup. The collapse in her authority has been so dramatic and so total that it’s hard to think of a precedent: the best I can manage is Viscount Goderich, who served as prime minister for 144 days between 1827 and 1828, and spent most of them in tears, but he didn’t start with anything like May’s commanding advantage.
It is now almost as hard to think our way out of the prevailing political narrative – Labour riding high, Tories in drastic decline – as it was when it was the other way round, and that (unbelievably) was only a few months ago. This isn’t a problem, necessarily: politics is as much about what people think is happening as it is about anything else, until suddenly it’s what people weren’t thinking about that’s important. Brexit can hardly be put in that category, but its shape and effects are still conspicuously unclear, viewed from Brighton – where it was deliberately obfuscated in the interests of party unity – or Manchester. The Tories could still be sunk by the negotiations; the failure to make a deal could force Britain over the top into no man’s land. The resulting economic downturn could blow a hole in Labour’s spending plans and repair the case for austerity. Or it could all turn out OK, and restore the Tories’ reputation for competence just in time for the next election. We may want to avert our gaze, but Brexit is coming for us whether we like it or not. Talk about a Che on the Wall.