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Bernard Jenkin's Conservative Conference Diary

 

My week started with a return to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, for a reunion 30 years on. Simon Heffer interviewed Owen Paterson about his life and work. Naturally, we were assailed by GM foods and badgers, but also about how he started trading his family leather business behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of Communism. Just after Mrs T was elected in 1979, he was greeted with hostility by a Prague restaurant owner, who thought he was German, but that changed when he realised Owen was British, remarking it may take ten years, but Mrs T’s victory heralded the beginning of the end of Communism.

The next morning I sang in Chapel, where I had served as a Choral Exhibitioner for three years. The return to Cambridge was bitter-sweet: lost loves; three close friends who are now dead, including John Antcliffe, best man at our wedding, and Simon Milton. Everyone should make a pilgrimage to their past. It is a spiritual experience.

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The future of the Civil Service would not instantly strike one as sexy fringe material, but audiences responded positively as I outlined the recent report published by PASC (Public Administration Select Committee). We concentrate on not the usual debate about structures and organisation, skills or lack of them, but about the now vexed relationship between ministers and officials, and why ministers feel blocked and thwarted.The final 20th point in the Government’s latest “One Year On” plan asks about how to address attitudes and behaviours in Whitehall. PASC concludes that reform can only succeed following an open and honest conversation about how and why ministers and officials now behave in the way they do. 

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The Telegraph’s Judith Woods wrote a devastating critique of where the Conservatives and David Cameron now stand with women. “Back in 2010, 36% of women backed the Tories, compared to 31% for Labour”, she writes, but now “support for the party and, very specifically, the Prime Minister, among female voters is in free-fall.” A recent poll shows now 29% of women are pro-Conservative, compared to 42% who support Labour. 

The re-shuffle is intended to address this, and the effort to select women candidates continues, but is this enough? Many of us Tory men tend to feel that “women” can deal with “women’s issues”, so men can get on with running the country. The Quad [left] are all men. The National Security Council is overwhelmingly men. The Tory High Command (DC, GO and Lynton) are all men. Only three out of 25 on the Party Board are women. Most of the advisers and policy wonks are men. And of course, most MPs will continue to be men. It is going to take a long time to change all this, so what else must we change?

We should look at how we all behave. Generously hosting a 40-40 dinner to discuss prospects and tactics in the marginal seats, Lord Ashcroft was asked by a woman MP about declining Conservative support amongst women. “Shut up and sit down!” was his response. He was trying to make a joke, of course, but the need to make a joke speaks volumes about the anxiety provoked by the question.

Janet Daley blogged about how the Chancellor’s SpAd briefed the Telegraph team after his speech. “The two women among us he ignored. And when I say he ignored us, I don’t mean that he snubbed us or deliberately cut us dead. I mean that he didn’t see us. It was as if we were pieces of furniture rather than sentient beings.”

And the Prime Minister greeted a leading high profile business women who happens to be the wife of a major donor to the party, by asking, “And where is [x – the husband]!?” 

We men are all guilty of such unconscious slights to women, but women voters see it and feel it. A business change programme would involve zero tolerance of such behaviour. We have perhaps yet to understand what “change” in the Conservative Party really means.

It is not something the leadership does, or women can do for us. Every man in the Conservative Party needs to change or be left behind. The leadership needs to be on this 24-7-365, not just at re-shuffle time. 

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The EU dog did not bark during the conference, but the Conservative Party has yet to give an answer to the existential question of whether we should govern ourselves or not. The fringe debate between Bill Cash and Nigel Farage (both pointlessly airbrushed out of the official fringe guide) was acrimonious. Farage accused Bill of lacking principles because he would not vote down the John Major’s Government in the 1993 confidence vote at the end of proceedings on the Maastricht Bill.

Bill pointed out to Farage that UKIP is unlikely to win any seats in the Commons at all, and therefore can achieve nothing, because a referendum or changes to EU treaties requires seats in the Commons. Worse, by undermining the Conservative Party, UKIP is destroying the only means to achieve the very things they say they want. Vote UKIP and get Labour! David Cameron is apparently delighted by Bill’s attack on UKIP.

If the Conservative Party had been true to itself, nobody would ever have regarded UKIP as a necessary invention. The objective must be to demonstrate the redundancy of a vote for UKIP by the next election. We will not achieve this if conference rumours are true: that we are to attempt a renegotiation without changing the EU treaties at all. Matthew Elliott flagged the forthcoming Business for Britain analysis of the 1975 renegotiation, which then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt later dismissed as “cosmetic”.

Nigel Lawson already predicts history will be repeated, since he expects a forthcoming renegotiation will be “inconsequential”. David Cameron’s fourth Bloomburg principle states: “It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.” That requires treaty change, and clear language in our manifesto which explains how that will be delivered, or UKIP will continue to profit from Conservative timidity.  

 

 

 

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