Ten things we learned from the Tory conference
1) Chris Grayling is a popular choice for justice secretary:
He wouldn’t exactly be your first choice to enjoy a pint with, but Grayling has the sort of dead-eyed, intransigent attitude to law and order that delights the rank and file. His conference speech granted every one of the party’s wishes: tougher punishments for criminals, efforts to repatriate foreign prisoners, a rethink on the European Convention on Human Rights.
Of course, he lacks any sort of charisma, but that’s not necessarily what Tories want from their justice ministers. This is the one area that the Conservatives consistently trounce Labour in the polls and Grayling will surely increase that margin.
2) But they’re not half as nasty as they’d like you to think:
Ken Clarke put it rather well when he told a fringe meeting that Grayling ‘presents things differently to me’. In essence, there is little to choose between the two. Grayling was keen to emphasise he will continue the policy on finding meaningful work for prisoners, and the so-called rehabilitation revolution will continue untouched under the new secretary. It’s been said that while Ken freed the crooks, Grayling will throw away the key. Don’t always believe the rhetoric – the Tories were not particularly liberal before and will not be overly nasty in future.
3) The new intake is impressive:
Aside from the new justice secretary, David Cameron appears to have chosen well in picking his junior ministers for the Ministry of Justice. Both Jeremy Wright and Helen Grant come across as knowledgeable, experienced and willing to listen to reasoned arguments. It is obvious they have recently worked in the law and each, it is fair to say, is an improvement on their predecessor. Plus Grant is apparently an avid Gazette reader. Sensible lady. One hopes the sheer weight of this unforgiving department won’t grind them down too soon.
4) We will all miss Ken:
Of course, the old timer has not retired from politics altogether – he retains a roaming role in Cabinet and will advise on areas like trade and economic policy. But his departure from the MoJ will be keenly felt. Here was a man with a wealth of experience and the wit and confidence to speak his mind. Cameron’s team is noticeably weaker without him at the forefront. To see him put out to pasture seems a waste, especially when he obviously has lost none of his enthusiasm for politics.
5) No one is interested in legal aid anymore:
In 2011 several fringe events dealt with imminent cuts to legal aid. Understandably, with the cuts now ratified, the issue has fallen down the agenda. But it was noticeable that not one member of the justice team so much as mentioned legal aid over the course of the conference. In 2011 this was a cause celebre. In 2012 it almost seems an anachronism.
6) Europe is still a contentious issue for the Conservatives:
There’s nothing the members like more than a little Europe-bashing, and Grayling played to the gallery with his will-he, won’t-he teasing on possible withdrawal from the European Court on Human Rights. The suggestion was only fuelled by interviews with the right-wing press that almost read like it was a done deal.
But just an hour before Grayling’s speech, attorney general Dominic Grieve was ruling withdrawal out completely, pointing out we’d be left in the same position as Russia in terms of our position on human rights. Do not expect us to ditch the court anytime soon.
7) Birmingham is a tolerant and random city:
Tremendous credit should go to England’s second city for the way it shut down most of its city centre for the sake of this conference. And I hope delegates appreciated the hospitality and friendliness as much as I did. That said, there are some genuinely awful buildings in this city (not least the ‘Cube’, now home to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which seems to have been made out of Lego).
8) Conferences ain’t what they used to be:
In my youth conferences seemed to be played out in front of football stadium audiences, with rows of ministers sitting like the Soviet politburo. How things change. This year’s main conference speeches were given in a glorified theatre, yet with curiously little drama. Perhaps the reason speeches are so rarely memorable nowadays is there are so few people listening.
9) They needed more seats at certain events:
When the eminent Joshua Rozenberg is locked out of a Society of Conservative Lawyers meeting, you know the capacity is too small. Still, it made for great drama when a barrister decided to break the ‘one-in, one-out’ policy and was promptly removed by the over-zealous security services. It’s health and safety gone mad I tell you.
10) Ten was probably a bit ambitious.
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