Here’s something new for party conference season: real people. About 200 of them. Firemen. Unemployed. And, yes, workers. They are brought to you courtesy of Victoria Derbyshire’s Five Live show, where I am sitting at the back listening to this mass focus group session. It has become (for me, anyway) an unmissable feature of the party conference season – a welcome injection of real life into the all-too-myopic conferences. Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet members turn up knowing that this session will be about all the normal, disinterested person will hear about the conference. Now and again, she asks them to clap or boo depending if they agree or disagree. It’s fast-moving, and very much to the point.
One point has jumped out at me immediately. A lady at the front said she was unemployed and does not want the Tories. “But don’t you feel Labour has let you down?” she’s asked. Yes, she says. But she doesn’t trust any politician now. Lots of nodding. This is the silent voice of anti-politics, the unspoken force at this election. Often, in my job, I feel I’m presenting a false dichotomy – for most of the public the ‘none of the above’ or ‘plague on all your houses’ vote is the strongest emotion on election day. Around me, I see younger people checking their iPhone or reading the papers. Much of this does no interest them: and this matters.
Anyway, here are a few points from my time on the show.
1. Chris Grayling says that the Tory position on Lisbon will become clear if (heaven forbid) it is ratified by the next election. “When we get into the general election campaign, David Cameron will set out clearly what he intends to do.” What can he mean? My suspicion: that there is talk internally about a referendum, not on Lisbon but a wider question – as yet undecided. This would explain the strange, rather embarrassing silence.
2. An Irishman says the Tories are “not being entirely honest” about the types of cuts they will have to make. Being Irish, he’d know all about that – Dublin is freezing nurses pay, threatening to sack them if they can’t make the savings. All the sort of stuff that will probably have to be enacted here. And are the Tories being entirely honest? Of course not. They have not put a figure on this – for understandable electoral reasons. The flip side of this strategy is to be accused of keeping secrets. IMHO Tory cuts will be in the region of 13% to 20% versus the 7% outlined by Labour in the last Budget. It’s understandable why they don’t spell this out. But also understandable why punters, especially ones with an eye on the fiscal carnage underway in Ireland, smell a large whiskered rat.
3. Paul, a student, says “increased unemployment is not a price to pay” for correcting the deficit – and is rewarded by applause. The idea that the Tory cuts will bring unemployment (one promoted by that idiot Blanchflower recently) is seeping into the public consciousness. There is a big vacuum where a Tory response to this point should be.
4. Hammond seeks to reassure. “We have guaranteed for the lifetime of the parliament real-terms increase in NHS spending… which recognizes the central importance it has in people’s lives.” Really, Philip? So what does this say about education cuts – are they less of a priority? Again, the language and logic is just so sloppy. Does a government measure commitment in terms of budget? Isn’t that the Labour error? It’s all just sitting there, waiting to backfire in an election campaign.
5. Derbyshire invites the audience to clap or boo, depending on how they feel about the Tories. The boos have it. This is, of course, Manchester – but the surrounding area is pregnant with marginal seats. Grayling frowns.
6. I have to say that Grayling – bald, sitting down with a blue dotted tie that clashes with his pink striped shirt – goes down far better with these punters than the actuarial Hammond, who dresses every bit like the multi-millionaire he is. Grayling is the sort of bloke that you’d expect to see in your local. Hammond is the sort you’d expect to see whiz past you in a limo. Grayling spends an unhealthy chunk of his life campaigning around this part of the country, Hammond spends his behind a desk with a calculator (and I’m glad, because someone has to). “We have to establish credibility to maintain Britain’s creditworthiness” he tells the audience – all well and good, Philip, but how many people in this room are concerned about the AAA rating? You can argue they should be, but they’re not. Anyway, Hammond has his skills. But the Tories should be careful how they deploy him.
7. John from Lincoln says he wants job cuts in local government like – for example – the Five a Day co-ordinators. “They’re just wasting people’s taxes”. This, Mr Hammond, is how to express the argument in clear English. Thatcher used to open mail from voters, not to learn about ideas but to read and copy the language they used. She spoke directly to England, as Reagan (and, yes, George W Bush) spoke directly to America. Time Coulson started courses in vernacular English and forced the Shadow Cabinet to attend.
8. Grayling says he hates the term “anti-social behavior” – it’s criminal, and should be punished as a criminal act. Applause. His law-and-order agenda is going down well here. Good. Grayling has not yet made as much impact in Home as he did in Welfare – perhaps this is beginning to change.
9. Dan Hannan calls for a “wider renegotiation of our position” with Europe if Lisbon is ratified. “We will want to look at a package of the things we would like to have back. EU criminal justice system, the moves towards a foreign office with embassies abroad.” “Do you expect 27 other countries to renegotiate that with you?” “If we ask for British opt-outs, there is quite a lot to be decided.” I agree with Hammond – and please note, Mr Cameron he is not calling for a post-ratification referendum on Lisbon. There really is no Tory split on this, yet the Tories have not managed to persuade the media of this.
10. I wish, CoffeeHousers, that you could hear what has just happened. Many of you say the punters don’t care about Lisbon. Derbyshire asks who wants a referendum on Lisbon: clap if you do, she says. The noise is deafening. “Absolutely, because no one has told us what the Lisbon Treaty is about,” says one of the punters. Who wants a post-ratification referendum? Silence. Please note, Mr Cameron, even the Eurosceptic British punters do not want a pointless post-ratification referendum. What’s the problem in ruling it out? Even Bill Cash doesn’t see the point.
11. Grayling talking about the “broken society agenda” – interesting. I thought he personally didn’t like that phrase (which was forged in the Liam Fox leadership campaign which Grayling backed). Grayling tried the “Jeremy Kyle generation” but that was about as contagious as H5N1 bird flu. Which is to say: not very.
12. Ahhh – Grayling in trouble. Edward, a student who looks like a mini Vernon, denounced Grayling for comparing Mosside in Manchester to The Wire.” It’s “snobby” he says – huge cheers from the crowd. Dogged wee Grayling fights back immediately: “did you read my speech?” “No.” “Well, I didn’t say that. “I don’t come from an inner-city area,” says Grayling – to quiet laughs from the audience, as if this were the understatement of the year. This isn’t a cross-section: they all look quite young, and most under-25s don’t vote in Britain. So Grayling shouldn’t take it too hard.
13. Grayling is asked what he’d do about judges who let criminals off too lightly. He replied “Scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.” This, I’m afraid, is disingenuous. Dominic Grieve is one of those lawyers who loves the ECHR (and spoke in favour of it in his maiden speech) – he plans a scam whereby the Bill of Rights would be deemed junior to the ECHR and, therefore, worthless. The Human Rights Act may go, but all it did was give a British face to legislation which would under the Tories still reign over English justice.
14. Mark Francois takes on the accusation – much parroted by the left – that the Tory new coalition partners are racist, homophobic, Hitler-saluting baby eaters. He takes this head-on. I like his style. He knows his stuff. Francois is going places: he works hard, gets his facts right, projects himself well. Buy.
15. I finish off by asking Francois what Grayling meant – what plan on Europe does he have? He was all coy, but I could see a smile on his face that he wouldn’t allow if this were television. “You have a cunning plan, don’t you Mark?” He joked that no one has yet compared him to Baldrick. But a cunning plan there does seem to be. And I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.