BBC Radio Five is broadcast on 909 kHz, but whatever wavelength the Conservative Party is using was not being received by the 200 average voters assembled by Victoria Derbyshire’s meet-the-public programme now held in every party conference. It’s normally the closest that ordinary voters get to the party conferences, inviting frontbenchers to take questions from locals. The results are quite often explosive.
Grant Shapps, the new Tory chairman, was the first guest and was inevitably asked about why he ran his business operating under a made-up name. He gave various explanations but the man in the audience wasn’t buying it. ‘My name’s Barry Tomes. That’s my real name, by the way,’ he started, to much laughter. Barry said he’s happy to pay the 50p tax rate, ‘provided that you lot spend the money properly – which you don’t’. More should go to people who can’t work, and less to people who can but won’t. He said knew a guy who was on benefits, but had ‘the best Sky package’ and goes on foreign holidays. ‘You’re paying all of his costs, mate!’ he said to Shapps. ‘You’re getting it wrong, all the parties are getting it wrong.’ ‘We’re sorting it out,’ said Shapps. ‘I don’t believe you,’ came the reply – again to applause.
Another young man, who looked about 18, asked what is (for me) the question of the week: ‘If you’re cutting benefits, the deficit should be going down. Instead, it’s going up. Why?’ It was left to Bill Cash to respond, talking about off-balance-sheet debt and ‘small-to-medium sized enterprises’. I daresay he had a point, but he may as well have answered in ancient Greek for all the sense it made to the audience.
Another girl described how hard she was finding it: the training, trying to find work. What has the government done for her? Ex-Osborne aide Claire Perry MP empathised, saying she too ‘went to a local comprehensive school’ and that her first job was ‘working in a bakery aged 14’. The audience didn’t seem persuaded. Perry than said that the government needs to start talking the language of ordinary people – but there was no applause. None came. The girl started again: ‘You say you want to get on our side, but you’re not.’ Later on, another woman suggested that ‘this government is trying to stop people get into higher education’ – a ludicrous suggestion, but one given applause. Just like the Labour Party conference, the anti-politician mood triumphed. The audience seemed to assume the worst of the politicians.
But there was an exception, and one worth noting. Sajid Javid, a new Treasury minister who was a Vice President of Chase Manhattan Bank by the age of 25, came up with his own story. He was the son of a Bangladeshi bus driver, five kids brought up in a two-bedroom flat. ‘My mother used to sew clothes just to make ends meet. I know what it’s like.’ (‘Have you told George Osborne what it’s like?’ said Derbyshire, to much laughter.) Strikingly, Javid then went on to defend bankers (Shapps had been bashing them) saying the financial sector and its employees pay £120bn in tax ‘that is what funds our schools and hospitals’. So banker-bashing doesn’t make sense because ‘if we want that sector to survive, we have to make it internationally competitive.’ Not many Tories would have got away with this. Javid did. Anna Soubry, an ex-newsreader in my native Highlands, also spoke very well about immigration.
Derbyshire then went on to her panto-style list of party policies, asking people to shout out yes-no answers. Do you think it’s fair that housing benefit is restricted to under-25s? Nooo. Is it fair to cap benefits on families who have another child? Nooo. Then Javid interrupted: ‘Is it fair that we cap the amount that any household can spend on benefits at £500 a week?‘ The was a pause, and the answer was a muffled ‘yes’. It was the only time on the Derbyshire show that any of the invited Tory guests cut through to this audience. Keep you eye on Javid: I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him.