The Conservatives are granted only two tickets to Labour party conference: a shame, because there could have been no better morale booster for Tory troops. The merger between Labour and their union paymasters has become so advanced that shadow ministers speak about the joint ‘movement’ rather than the party. Dethroned Cabinet members are still wandering around with their old advisers, as if they can’t accept they have no department to run. The standard of debate in the conference’s fringe meetings suggests that Labour suffered not only defeat, but a lobotomy. There are no new ideas, as Ed Miliband demonstrated in his tortuous speech.
Miliband speaks about the need for welfare reform and to support ‘good’ business (rather than the wicked ‘predators’). Fundamentally, however, he regards economic liberalisation as an error which he would like to correct. The last 30 years are now spoken of as a giant economic mistake, as if they unleashed moral decay rather than national restoration. It is quite astonishing: Labour has chosen as its leader one of the few MPs who looks back to the 1970s with nostalgia.
This creates a substantial opportunity for George Osborne. The Chancellor is, like Gordon Brown, an intensely political man who judges economic policies by what the opposition might say about them. Other Cabinet members are struck by how, when he speaks about the economy, almost everything is discussed in reference to what Labour might do or say in response. It is as if he is fighting a permanent election, and feels he must govern through symbiosis. The more Labour is perceived to be strong, the more cautious Osborne is as a result. His cuts are just 1 per cent a year deeper than those Alistair Darling had planned.
But after this week, concerns about Labour’s strength should be put aside. The most powerful speech at its conference was delivered by a 16-year-old boy. The defining moment came when the audience booed the very mention of Tony Blair, as if in relief that the exhausting, election-winning period of its history is over. Ed Miliband has some thoughtful advisers, mindful about the public concerns on immigration, welfare abuse and crime. But Miliband himself perceives this only dimly. He has never held a job outside Westminster, yet he genuinely regards himself an ‘outsider’ because he grew up in a different faction of the Labour party. Those worried about the world outside political textbooks are disparaged as ‘Blairites’. So far, they have held their tongues. They may not for long.
So the Conservatives find themselves with the monopoly on meaningful political debate. As the other parties turn in on themselves, the Tories can look outwards. Labour seems intent on blowing its opportunity to modernise and recover. Osborne can be more ambitious in the savings to be found in government spending, and use the money saved for stimulatory income tax cuts. He should not delay in swapping the 50p tax for a scheme which actually raises money. Britain should, like other European countries, ignore the most egregious EU regulations that impede recovery.
There have been times when Conservatives had to be cautious, sometimes even reactionary. But there are times when they have to be bold, optimistic and radical — and we are living in such a time. It is understandable that Osborne frets about Labour, but his most potent enemy is the threat of a new recession. He should now fight it with every tool at his disposal.
Hot under the collar
Rowan Atkinson, the comedian and actor, this week denounced many of the clerics he has met as being ‘smug’, ‘arrogant’, ‘conceited’, and ‘presumptuous about their position in society’. He shows no mercy to the clergy, and shows no doubts whatsoever about his right to judge the church.
There are smug priests, of course, just as there are smug architects, smug engineers, smug police officers, smug politicians and, whisper it, smug comedians. No member of the priesthood, for instance, would sit behind the wheel of a sports car valued at £2 million, still less prang it, as Mr Atkinson did last month. No ‘clerk in holy orders’, as vicars used to call themselves, would attempt to raze a perfectly good house in Oxfordshire to the ground, and build in its stead a montrous glass and steel edifice, as Mr Atkinson wants to do, in defiance of the wishes of local people. Some fuddy-duddies might consider this sort of behaviour to be arrogant. His unhappy neighbours might even suggest that Atkinson himself was a touch presumptuous about his own place in society. Perhaps Mr Atkinson is above hypocrisy.
Modern comedians have become a secular priesthood. They have their own customs and rituals, and their own language, which is not always friendly. There is a strict hierarchy among TV comics, and at the top of the profession, an untouchable, cabal, far grander and more self-important than any circle of bishops.
Many comedians like Atkinson are rich beyond their dreams. Most real priests, by contrast, live humbly, and dedicate their ministry to the lives of others without expectation of reward. If Rowan Atkinson is keen to continue his new vocation as a lay preacher, he would do well to learn from their example.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 1, 2011