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"We admire the development of the peace movement around the world in the last few years. We pray to God to empower all those working against war." - Saddam Hussein, February 2003

Saturday, October 12, 2002  

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Tuesday, 8 October (Early Afternoon)

THE CENTRE FOR Policy Studies held a fringe meeting on Tuesday lunchtime, opaquely titled "The Moral Market". It was the guests rather than the subject that got me interested: they included the Telegraph's Janet Daley and Oliver Letwin.

It began with one man from Barclay's Bank and another speaker from an organisation called Outreach or Groundwork or something outlining their work in helping the local community through the free market. Janet Daley spoke next, forcefully and cleverly. To someone like me who never misses her Telegraph columns, little was new, but she now had longer than a thousand words or so to develop her argument. She undermined the idea that public spending was more moral than private spending, noting by contrast, that morality by definition was entirely about individual choices, so that only the private individual can possibly be moral. The task for the Conservatives, she said, was to fight the notion that selfishness was about wanting a smaller state and that collectivism was moral.

Oliver Letwin then got up and apologised for what was to come: all his points had been made already by Janet Daley. Yet he went on - without notes - to give by far the best speech I heard all week. It was fantastic: witty, inspiring and insightful. Far from indulging in personal or vitriolic attacks on his opponents, he attributed to them the best of motives, but showed comprehensively how wrong they were. He said that for all the work he had done in the back rooms of politics in the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative Party had never had the courage to do what it was planning to do this week, that we would look back on the 2002 Conference as a turning point for the Conservatives. Secretly, he believed, the Prime Minister was probably desperately jealous of the sort of diverse and decentralising policies the Tories now had, but that Gordon Brown, the Labour Party and the unions would never allow them, tied as they were to the honest but mistaken belief that the growing state was to the benefit of society. The Conservatives had never been about "devil take the hindmost libertarianism" and always been concerned with the vulnerable and with society as a whole. Now, he continued, it could show this concern and go into the election fighting for the liberty of the British people. The conservatism he represented was about "Setting people free, not setting people adrift", he stressed, stealing a slogan from an earlier speaker, saying that it summarised what the party believed better than any phrase he had yet heard.

As Oliver Letwin sat down and the host congratulated him, I felt absolute certainty that freedom and the smaller state were moral, economically efficient and - politically - the future of Britain. A clergyman in the audience rose as soon as questions began and talked about how so many of his colleagues equated collectivism with charity and selflessness. He asking Letwin for a copy of the speech he had just delivered to show them how mistaken this was. The Shadow Home Secretary answered that the CPS had been recording the meeting and so his remarks would be published soon. A few questions followed before the meeting broke up. As people were leaving, I stood to the side to let Letwin past and noticed as I did so that he had the details of all the places he was supposed to be that day charmingly sellotaped onto a little card he was holding. Invigorated and ready for more, I headed for the main Conference Hall.

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 18:35 | Permanent Link |

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Tuesday, 8 October (Morning)

THE FIRST MEETING I attended the next morning was with Ann Widdecombe as the lone speaker on the 'Right to Life'. She spoke in strong support of the Conservatives' opposition to the way children as young as 11 can now get the morning-after-pill at school without parental knowledge. As one questioner noted to much applause, her daughter could not legally take aspirin without her consent, yet could get the morning-after-pill at school without her knowing a thing about it. No good government in a free society should seek to undermine the loving care of parents, the vast majority of whom provide better guidance than the state ever can.

I spoke in support of the party's policy on this, but noted that while it might be a Godsent to many middle class parents, not all would benefit:

"I think there are many parents who would be happy to cooperate with their children and give permission for the sake of a quiet life. I think that the party needs to look at a way to get across basic moral values to everyone. Being young myself, I have seen the way sex education in schools is done, and it is in the most clinical way possible, without any connection to love or procreation. If we are to have sex education, I think the party needs to get across the moral aspect to sexual activity. Many would say that means moralising, but that is far preferable to treating young people like animals, unreachable by morality or reason, who need to be controlled through pills and so on."

Ann Widdecombe nodded solemnly a number of times through this, then when I sat down she answered simply, "What is wrong with moralising? Why not get across to people the moral aspect of what they are doing?"

Someone asked what chance there was of abortion being stopped in the next ten years. She answered straight out that there was none at all in this parliament. Having been involved in attempts to restrict abortion, she knew what had to happen was for the all party pro-life group in Parliament to be large enough that its bills could not be amended by an anti-life majority. Once a bill was on the table, she warned, it could easily be amended the other way by those in favour of even easier abortions, so it was unfeasible to make any attempt in this parliament.

Widdecombe also pointed out, at first to some hostility, that it was a very good thing that abortion was not a matter of Conservative Party policy, as the policy could just as easily be turned in favour of abortion as against it:

"You will all remember David Alton, a great pro-life Liberal MP. Well at one time the Liberals decided to make it party policy to support legal abortion, and David Alton said to them 'I can't stand on this platform' and the party lost him as an MP. We mustn't go down that road."

There was more optimism regarding the United States, an Australian questioner noting that were President Bush to win a second term, he would only have to appoint one more pro-life judge to the Supreme Court to replace a pro-abortion judge to overturn Roe versus Wade. This would make it a states rights issue, ensuring that in most of the USA, the lives of the unborn would be protected once again.

The woman sat next to me asked about euthanasia, which wasn't really discussed in the rest of the meeting. She said that we had to be wary of any bills making it legal, however restricted, as this would soon lead to what happened with abortion, which started with the requirement of a signature from two doctors that the woman would be harmed economically or in some other way by giving birth and ended with abortion almost on demand. Ann Widdecombe agreed, saying that she believed that ten years after 'voluntary euthanasia' first became legal, "no granny would be safe".

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 17:39 | Permanent Link |

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Monday, 7 October (Evening)

I HAD READ in the newspaper before coming to the Conference that the party was considering giving special seating to younger members so that they would appear on the camera more often, giving the impression of a younger party. The ticket I had been given entitling me to reserve seating suggested the same, and it was confirmed when I got to the meeting-point, most of those with tickets being young, though not so many as to make it obvious. As the health debate was about to start, we were all seated on chairs near to the podium, and I saw Louise Hall wandering around with a permanently concerned expression, apparently encouraging anyone under about 30, or wearing a turban, to move down to the camera-friendly seats.

The debate itself was actually rather dull. I was sat in the third row from the left of the podium, the Shadow Cabinet being sat on the first row to the right, so I was directly opposite Iain Duncan Smith. Nonetheless, the guest speakers were apolitical and more than a little tedious. When the time for one minute contributions from the floor came along, I woke up a bit, though. One man spoke about embryo research, pointing out that all the worthwhile advances gained in the rest of the world had come without destroying human lives, and that we should follow their example, using only the stem-cells in adult bodies. "Tony Blair said we should not let our ideas of right and wrong impede science." He finished by declaring that nothing could come before right and wrong. I applauded enthusiastically, and noted that Liam Fox and IDS were both doing the same.

One eccentric of the sort that are too rare these days spoke soon afterwards in a rather rambling way. When he reached the words "And remember, Plato warned us ..." the conference hall laughed loudly, wondering where this was going, IDS very amused. Eventually he went over his time and was told to stop.

The debate closed with Liam Fox's speech, as radical and optimistic as Damien Green's. Fines for those who "use ambulances as taxis" and failed to attend their NHS appointments were promised. State support for those who took out private health insurance was to be restored. He talked of Sweden's system of the government paying 60% of the cost of a private operation to those who chose to remove themselves from the waiting lists and from the state's concern. These proposals, he went on, he found attractive.

In offering massive state subsidies to those who go private, Liam Fox defended himself simply: "Why do state-funded services have to be state-run?". It is a question impossible to answer logically, unless you believe the convenience of NHS bureaucrats and employees in resisting the labour market flexibility the rest of us endure should come before the health of the British people. Fox noted Tony Blair's own priority of "schools and hospitals first" and trumped it, to the delight of the hall, with the Tory message "pupils and patients first", illustrating the difference in their outlooks. In all their criticisms of Britain's "two-tier health service", the left openly admit that private care is better than that the state can run. It follows naturally from that that state-run services should at very least not be the only ones state-funded.

Last week, one Labour MP described Britain's belief in healthcare funded entirely through taxation, without insurance charges or payments per operation, as unique to Britain. He didn't make the obvious link between that and having the worst healthcare system in Europe. The Tories have studied how other countries do things better and learned some worthwhile lessons. By refusing to charge patients to see their GP, they also showed they know the present limits of public acceptability. The Tory strategies on health and education unveiled, the party knew it was right and knew it could confidently face the voters after eight or nine years of a failed Labour government with their revolutionary ideas. As Liam Fox finished, the hall gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Before calling it a night, I went to a fringe meeting on the future of universities, which included Damien Green. Little of interest was added to what had already been said in the main hall's education debate.

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 14:34 | Permanent Link |

Friday, October 11, 2002  

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Monday, 7 October 2002 (Mid-Afternoon)

I ENTERED THE Conference Hall from the top, and as I sat down, a huge cup was given to the webmaster who had produced the best Conservative site in the last year. Soon Teresa May was on her feet. I didn't see any news reporting of the speech until I returned to my B&B that night, but I was rather baffled by the way the BBC and most of the press covered it. Yes, she was tough and she was brutally honest, but the Conference and the Party were with her. She won loud applause for every major point in her speech and an enthusiatic standing ovation at the end.

The Education debate was particularly good. An Asian Conservative who had just finished his A levels made a fantastic speech. He hadn't yet found out if he had passed because of this government, he said. In his fury over what had happened, he called for every AS level paper to be torn up and for Estelle Morris to resign. The warmth of the hall to a rousing and correct speech did not extend to a standing ovation, which I felt the speaker deserved.

Probably deliberately, this year's conference had many speakers who were black or Asian and the warm and fair response of the hall was heartening. I came away from the debates that evening feeling rather angry with myself for fearing that the constant impression created by the BBC and Guardian that the Conservative Party is about latent, fogeyish racism might be true. In fact, the hall applauded speakers of all colours and races on the strength of their argument and listened politely and judged fairly the speeches of those dressed in the most foreign of costumes. I can't imagine a less racist audience. It was certainly a far cry from the 2001 Labour Party Conference, when the international guest Gerhard Schroeder had the gall to address the conference in his native tongue, and was met by contemptous gasps and an angry "WHAT?!" from one woman in the hall, until it was clear he had an interpreter.

Damien Green ended the debate by announcing six new policies in his speech, including an idea more radical than education vouchers - extending not only to state funding for public schools, but to state funding for parents who set up their own schools. In his speech, He told of how one pupil threw a chair from the school roof onto a crowd of young kids in the playground. "Thank God no one was killed." Damien Green went on to report that his school had to pay £20,000 in legal fees to keep that pupil expelled because of the bureaucratic exclusions panels that could fight these cases. He promised their abolition. This promise had added resonance for me yesterday as I watched the news and saw that such a panel had just chosen to reverse the exclusion of two thugs who had terrified a teacher with death threats such as "You have 5 days to live" and "You will get a knife in the back of the head".

As Damien Green went on, the agenda of the Conservative Party under Iain Duncan Smith became clear to me. Far from moving to the left, as so many misreported it, politics - and both main political parties - moved to the right these last two weeks. The Conservative Party has chosen the American right-of-centre route - to look modern, bright, engaging and ordinary, but on many of the key issues to explore new radical ground and fight the statist agenda head on. To put it crudely, all the touchy-feely stuff is little more than an effective cover for a very welcome and necessary lurch to the right in dealing with the public services.

Overall, it was a fine speech, but again the Conference chose not to grant a standing ovation to a man who much deserved it. Damien Green is a fine, sensible, down to earth politician I would advise all to keep an eye on. As the transport debate began, I finally left to get something to eat, my ticket entitling me to a reserved seating place at that evening's health debate in an hour or so close at hand.

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 16:42 | Permanent Link |

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Monday, 7 October (Early Afternoon)

TO ANYONE WHO goes to a Conference in the future, whatever the party, I urge them to make time for The Independent Fringe Meeting. The newspaper is drab and politically correct, but the meetings are always relevant and attended by high-ranking politicians. Rather than set the agenda for the meeting as the meeting place is booked, they wait until the conference arrives before deciding it, ensuring good discussion of contemporary issues.

At 1pm on Monday, the topic for debate was "Can the Conservatives Win Again?", Steve Richards hosting an hour's discussion between Kenneth Clarke and John Bercow. Clarke spoke first, strongly concentrating on the economy. I don't think I have heard him speak on anything but Europe for the last five years, and I was surprised by how much sense he made on everything else, and how convincing he was. Brown was spending too much, he said, and already his growth figures had proved to be over-optimistic. Either taxes or borrowing would have to rise, the latter being only a delayed version of the former. He demolished the Chancellor's 'Golden Rule' that the government would not borrow except for 'investment' - ie. for state spending on what is popular. Who, he asked, when questioned about how much they owed, would separate it into good and bad debt? "Oh, I am not worried about this debt - I am spending this debt well".

John Bercow's rather corny, suspicious modesty was a feature of his speech on Monday, as of others. He began by explaining how pleased he was so many people had come, unlike a couple of years ago when he had arrived to find six people in the audience, their rowdiness chastised by his host: "If you go on like this, we will never be able to get a decent speaker!", she had told them as Bercow waited to begin. The main part of his opening speech concentrated on the party's future priorities. Essentially he confirmed what was to become clear later that afternoon - the first year of opposition was about looking like a nice party. He echoed Francis Maude's words: that accepting some of the basic ideals of social liberalism was a necessary - though not sufficient - condition for enough people to begin to take the Tories seriously again. Starting with that party's conference's policies, the rest of the parliament, he continued, would have to be focused on the three issues that matter to people above all: Health, Crime and Education.

Questions came next from the floor, yet sadly for forty minutes none of them seemed focused on those issues. Section 28 was debated in depth, with Clarke surprisingly opposed to repeal and Bercow repeating his view that it must be reversed - it was "a litmus test" for the party's future direction. For no apparent reason, Bercow declared that he had not slept a single night with his own fiance - and that anyone who believed that believed anything. I was keen after about half an hour of this touchy-feely stuff to ask why the party seemed ready to make the mistake of the last parliament and follow a newspaper agenda. In the 1997 Parliament they had concentrated on Mail and Sun issues like Asylum and the Euro, which mattered little to people at an election. Now, it seemed they wanted to follow a Guardian-readers' social agenda even more remote from the political thinking of ordinary British people. But I thought better of it - the conference was about to announce policies that would take on the three key issues, and I didn't want to criticise a party I knew would in hours go exactly in the direction I hoped for. Many journalists were there, Michael White from the Guardian stood behind me, scribbling shorthand of everything said, the BBC's Nick Robinson stood on my left and Michael Brown from the Independent was sat at the back of the room near where I stood.

One man stood up and said he had voted last year for Iain Duncan Smith as leader.

"Good man", someone called out, approvingly, to much applause. But the speaker went on to say that he was now ready to support Kenneth Clarke, should he stand against IDS, requesting that he do so. Clarke dodged the question unconvincingly: "I never say never". He finished by saying that he expected Iain Duncan Smith to lead the party into the next election, and would not make any statements regarding what happened after that. Steve Richards asked Bercow if he would take charge of Ken Clarke's leadership campaign after the next election. Bercow undiplomatically refused.

The most amusing question came from an old man at the front. He told how, following the 2002 Budget, he had been reading the Red Book in bed and been surprised to find that some of the central public expenditure figures didn't add up - total spending in certain areas was £215 billion yet the sum of all the individual spending departments' figures was £218 billion.

A rounding error, I thought, with the audience smiling as this esoteric question went on.

"I contacted the Treasury and they said it would be a rounding error. So my question is: do we now round up in billions of pounds?"

Kenneth Clarke handled it well, commending the man on reading the Red Book, recommending it to more people. He knew the answer would be a rounding error, because that was how he would have answered. He said that often rounding between Secretaries of State and Chief Secretaries to the Treasury would be done in tens of millions for convenience.

Michael Brown, sitting in the audience, asked Clarke his view on the IDS interview in the Sunday Telegraph, in which the Tory Leader had seemed ready to repudiate the Major Government. Clarke said that was a mistake, and that unless the Party remembered that for most of the eighteen years it had been in power it had been "a damn good government" it had no confident basis for a return to power. He also pointed out the economic circumstances the Major government had inherited and put right, not pointing out that it was Chancellor Major who did the damage to Thatcher's economy, but it passed by without criticism - the party seems thankfully unkeen to fight the battles of the past.

Clarke left at 2pm and Bercow took one more question alone, from a woman who had been in the party since 1944. She was angry with Bercow's perfectly correct encouragement of Tories to oppose not for the sake of it, but only when the government was wrong - a consistent repudiation of "yah-boo" politics that continued through many Shadow Cabinet speeches that week, the speaker making clear his support for Blair over Iraq soon afterwards in each case. She said that she feared she would die before she saw Blair lose power, and she wanted Bercow and his colleagues to fight him every chance they got, exposing him for the liar and cheat she knew him to be. Bercow stood and disagreed calmly, telling her that matters like Iraq and national security could not give way to partisan point scoring. He won applause for this as the meeting ended.

I headed for the main conference hall as it opened on the first day, passing the Politicos bookshop stand, with Ann Widdecombe enthusiatically selling her new book, An Act of Treachery: "Strike a blow for the clean novel - no sex, no violence, no swearing. Suitable for your aunt or your teenage niece", she cried.

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 15:29 | Permanent Link |

Conservative Party Conference Diary

Monday, 7 October 2002 (Morning)

AS I FOUND at last year's Labour Party Conference, often the most exciting debates at Conference are on the fringe. I made a full plan to attend as many of these meetings as I could. Monday morning began with one at 11am in a small, crowded, very hot hotel room on "Engaging Young People" in politics. The main speakers were Charles Hendry MP, Shadow Minister for Young People, Hannah Parker, Chairman of Conservative Future and two others who work with young people. Andrew Selous MP came in late and towered over the table where they sat. The meeting was actually rather tedious until the questions began, voter turnout not being the most inspiring of subjects.

Conservatives there, young and old, were united against most of the measures suggested to make voting easier. No one seemed in favour of lowering the voting age again and suggestions like internet voting were destroyed by the floor. One gentleman got much applause in describing how his staunch socialist father had always believed that his wife had shared his politics. In fact, the speaker's mother always voted Conservative in the privacy of the polling booth. That, he noted, would be impossible if voting were to be done online. Andrew Selous in particular was impressed by this point, nodding enthusiatically in agreement.

Though I didn't speak at this meeting, I see making voting less of a chore as missing the point. As Jonah Goldberg has said, trying to counter non-voting by making it easier to vote is like attempting to counter lack of appetite by making it easier to eat. Voting is essentially a dual responsibility. It imposes on the politician a responsibility to show the citizen how voting this way will make the voter's life better, and on the voter to demonstrate his commitment to his country. If voters lose interest, it is a typical politician's response to say "No one wants to support me - it is they who are at fault". It is up to them to generate interest and raise support. Equally, anyone who declines the opportunity to vote has no right to a say in the electoral process - to make it easier for those who can, but don't, walk a few yards down the road will only bring in the most worthless of views. Everyone has a right to vote, but that right is conditional on them wanting to be bothered.

I also wonder whether low turnout is really the dangerous thing many make it out to be. The United States has had around 50% turnout for ages, and has managed very well despite this. It may also be a recognition of the fallability of the vote. One single vote is unlikely to make a difference to any general election - it will either be superfluous, topping up an MP's majority, or wasted. I am currently reading the excellent Explaining Labour's Second Landslide by Robert Worcestor and Bob Woodward. The introduction explains in great statistical detail the reality of General Elections. Labour has a core vote of 30%, which can be secured in all but the worst of circumstances - all but 1983, effectively, when the party got about 27%. The Conservatives have an equal share, over 30% retained even in 1997 and 2001. The other parties collectively have a core vote of about 20%. Interestingly, the popularity of the Liberal Party does not change the figure much. Whether at its height, as in 2001, or its depth, as in the 1989 European Elections, the Liberal Party does not change the size of the "Other" core vote. When the Liberals do very badly, as in 1989, the Greens succeed in their place. When they do well, they take more of the "Other" core vote.

When these three core votes are taken from the total share, it turns out that floating voters make up only around 20% of the electorate. But with 4/5 of seats having very little chance of changing hands, it is the floating voters in the remaining 20% of constituencies who decide elections - just 4% of all the electorate (20% of 20%). Ordinary people will not have access to, or interest in, this sort of statistical detail, but many of them do know the reality that their vote matters little. I certainly plan to vote in every election, just in case, but I can understand well why others do not.

As I left the meeting, I passed Leon Brittan, Former European Commissioner and Home Secretary under Thatcher. He greeted Andrew Selous and they chatted while moving down the hill towards the Bournemouth International Centre. I also passed The Independent's Michael Brown and saw The Guardian's Simon Hoggart on his way up the escalator to the cafe in which I had a drink, his permanent smile, humble rather than smug, on his face.

Posted by Peter Cuthbertson | 12:09 | Permanent Link |
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