Iain Martin's Conference Diary: Tuesday
Free the Treasury Select Committee one
Extraordinary scenes in Manchester yesterday when the low tax pro-growth rebel Andrew Tyrie MP (AKA the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee) was kidnapped by the Prime Minister’s aides and interrogated over his criticism of the government. In recent days he has been saying all sorts of outrageous things: tax cuts would encourage growth, increasing energy costs via green taxes is lunacy in a downturn and the Big Society doesn’t really seem to have caught on as a concept.
Yesterday afternoon Tyrie had been preparing to give an interview to broadcasters about Chancellor George Osborne’s speech when Steve Hilton and Number 10 communications chief Craig David Oliver appeared. They were then filmed escorting the unfortunate Tyrie into a side room, where he was “given some pointers”.
Suitably reprogrammed, Tyrie emerged to give his interview. Looking like a victim in a hostage video he said that on reflection Osborne’s speech had been top notch and that the government is, all things considered, doing a wonderful job.
Thank goodness New Labour’s wicked era of spin, coercion and media manipulation is a thing of the past.
Tory law and order debates at conference really aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when Home Secretaries risked being lynched by outraged activists demanding the return of hanging, for shoplifting.
One veteran hack remembers 1981 with great fondness. “There had been riots all summer and representatives were furious with what they regarded as the soft-line taken by the government.”
Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, a decorated war hero who commanded Churchill tanks in the Battle for Normandy in 1944, was almost reduced to tears by the torrent of abuse emanating from speaker after speaker. The great man was even forced to suffer the indignity of being lectured from the podium by a young, rising star who urged him to get tough. She produced a pair of handcuffs and waved them at Willie. Her name? Edwina Currie.
Even after the appalling riots and unrest of this summer we can, I fear, expect no such antics from the floor when Theresa May makes her speech to conference today. This is a shame, as a good talking to keeps Home Office ministers on their toes. It is, after all, the only language they understand.
A period of silence
I’m pleased to report that this column’s Baroness Warsi campaign is making good progress. The under-fire party chairman’s recent daily press releases have been so lamentably lame and cartoonishly loyal that for a while I suspected sabotage by someone senior in the CCHQ media operation keen to expose her to ridicule.
But at close of play Baroness Warsi had released no press statements yesterday. This is obviously a massive improvement. Well done to everyone involved.
There was ballet dancing yesterday as organisers attempted to liven up the culture and sport session. No, it wasn’t Jeremy Hunt pirouetting across the stage in a tutu. Elena Glurdjidze, senior principal dancer at the English National Ballet, gave by far the most exciting platform performance of the day. Afterwards, hacks asked a Number 10 spin-doctor which ballet Elana’s dance had been drawn from. Was it Swan Lake? “She was a dancing swan. She was not a dying swan. No swans died on stage.”
You have to admire the honesty of Claire Perry MP, whilst wondering about the wisdom of her refreshingly direct approach. Asked at a fringe event what she had learnt since becoming an MP she said: “You can’t trust your colleagues.” Good spot Claire.
Eric Pickles, a favorite with Tory members, rolled out one of his favourite examples of public sector profligacy yesterday.
Speaking to conference he said: “Take the example of Labour blowing £5,000 on my department’s officials having a staff away day at a club. Not a working men’s club. Not a Pall Mall Gentlemen’s Club. No, a different kind of gentlemen’s club – a club which features Showgirl Sensation Amber Topaz and her exotic chum, Lady Beau Peep.”
Very amusing, but can it really be true? Did civil servants, as is implied, spend five grand on a day of lap-dancing or burlesque-related activities? Examine the carefully constructed quote and you’ll see that they didn’t.
News reports from the time confirm that the officials were in the club but that neither Ms Topaz, nor Baroness Peep, were on the premises. Civil servants actually took part in a session where they learnt team-building skills through the art of mime. So that’s ok then.