Beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’: report from the Conservative conference

What a contrast between the Conservative conference, just finished, and last week’s Labour event. In retrospect, Labour talk division, but, leadership aside, the wings have more in common than they care to admit. The ascendancy of the noisy Right under Theresa May has masked the obvious divisions and inconsistencies among the Tory tribe.

Fresh from a 6 year stint at the Home Office, Mrs May interprets the UK’s relationship with the rest of the European Union with a perspective that owes more to the Daily Mail than the Financial Times. You do occasionally wonder whether, had she been transport secretary instead, the main issue would have been about the difference between British and continental railway loading gauges. And, let’s face it, that would be equally legitimate. We know that there were many different reasons for people choosing Leave. When so many of the promises of the Leave campaign have been casually discarded this focus on immigration seems artificial, chosen because of its resonance among the Tory base (though the other bulwark of the shires, free trade, is subdued for now), and opportunist.

Opportunist, too, is the claiming of the ‘centre ground’ based on the adoption without acknowledgement of some of the 2015 Labour economic platform. This sop to Milibandism notwithstanding, lists of foreign workers and uncertainty over the status of foreign NHS doctors after 2025 do not One Nation make. Which is not to say that there weren’t people at fringes exploring a new, poverty-attacking role for the modern Conservatives. It was at one of these fringes that I heard the single reference to Jeremy Corbyn. To say that the Tories are quaking in their boots at his threat to the elite, a case I occasionally see made on Twitter, is piffle. (Speaking of piffle, the former Mayor of London is in the middle of his rehabilitation in readiness for his next attempt at the Tory crown.) But, although I’m sympathetic to the view that the Leave vote was one against elites, the Leave campaign was certainly led by them and the claim that Mrs May’s government (and its media cheerleaders) are not the elite is dishonest. It will also fester resentment among the leaderless Cameroons, stoking up future trouble for the prime minister.

Comparisons between Birmingham and Liverpool this week are fairly worthless. Perhaps a better comparison with CPC16 is found two years earlier. Tories in Birmingham in 2014 were the insurgents against (oddly) their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, whom they blamed for a lack of a ‘real’ Conservative government. But now there is – or could be – a real Conservative government, even if circumstances are such that it seems that we are presented what could pass as a Labour/Ukip coalition. The results were the kind of policy heavy discussions – which many have misdescribed as having ‘buzz’ – the sort of wonky debate that used to be and will again be commonplace at Labour conferences.

If Labour can stop navel-gazing it will find much to argue against, as the new government actually begins to present its programme. And perhaps we can be grateful that we have finally moved beyond the moronic ‘Brexit means Brexit’, even if on the evidence of this week, ‘anti-immigration’ is what Brexit meant all along.

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