Westminster Watch - November 2012

Toby Craig and Charles Hale review this year’s party conference season for Counsel

Life imitating art
Returning to our screens to satirise life in Coalition, The Thick of It has long sought to shine a light on some of the more ridiculous elements of party politics. Its success lies, in part, in the extreme caricatures it adopts. Real life couldn’t possibly be that bad. And that must have been on the writers’ minds when they thought up an episode in which the fictional Lib Dem team agreed to launch a ‘Community Bank’, requiring a mere £2bn of public funds, to the horror of their Coalition partners. So imagine their glee when that episode was broadcast in the same week as Vince Cable took to the Lib Dem conference stage to announce...a state bank requiring £1bn of public funds and extensive Government guarantees. Apparently you could make it up. And there was still time to bring back the spectre of a Mansion Tax, which lasted all of a few days before the Conservatives ruled it out.

And that set the tone for a party conference season full of the usual posturing, bravado and late nights in crowded hotel bars. But as Nick and Vince frolicked by Brighton Pier, Labour and the Tories had their game faces on as both parties sought to use their Conference platform to redefine their proposition to voters. It may be two and a half years until the next General Election, but as all three parties gleefully took credit for our Olympic summer, they were well aware of the value of associating themselves with the fleeting feel-good factor of the Great Games of 2012 which, all-in-all, left warmer memories than the riots of the year before.

Talking Eds
The stage in Manchester was very much set for the Ed and Ed show. Policy-light, as one would expect at this stage of the cycle, the Opposition were intent on pointing out the Government’s perceived inadequacies, painting themselves as the credible alternative on the side of that amorphous group, ‘the people’. There was tough talk from Balls, but the Conference was dominated by the Leader’s speech. Ed Miliband confounded expectations, not only by the content of his utterings but, most importantly, the fact that he came across as a normal person. Expectation management can be a strange thing. Most political commentators though agreed, this was a barnstorming, note-free speech that raised Miliband’s political capital significantly which can only be encouraging for the vital signs, finally, of an active opposition.

There is no doubt that, with a double figure poll lead, now is the time for Labour to seek to consolidate that head-start, with a view to sealing the deal in 2015. One of the party’s main concerns has been whether Miliband will suffer from the ‘Kinnock factor’ which, ultimately, prevents voters from seeing him as a potential Prime Minister. A strong and presidential-style speech will have done nothing to hurt his cause. The apparent kiss and make up with brother David will probably also encourage his rank and file.

A gay old time
Meanwhile, in Birmingham, the Tories were keen to set out their stall as a competent and decisive Government. There was scarcely a mention of the Lib Dems or Nick Clegg.

If only the same could be said for gay marriage, which seemed to attract an obsessive level of interest amongst the party faithful, and was also subject to some fairly extreme promotional literature, which was being readily handed out in the exhibition area. It was noticeable that every time a Minister said something positive about supporting gay civil marriage, a substantial number of delegates sat cross-armed and stony-faced, handbags at the ready. More to come on that one.

There is no doubt that the Prime Minister was facing a tough enough task before the rapturous reception which Boris received. Whilst proving that blondes do indeed have more fun, bathing in the Olympics’ golden glow, and maintaining he was not interested in leading the party, Boris will have done his future prospects a world of good with a loyal, funny and typically, well, Boris, contribution. No time for “Dave the Broom” to chillax. He rose to the challenge with a bravura speech. It included a particularly moving section about the way in which the Paralympics had helped to change views on disabilities, recalling how he always feared that when he took his late son out in public, people saw the wheelchair first and Ivan second. Amongst all the Olympic bragging, it was a refreshing reminder of how sport can change and shape social moods, as well as being a cause for celebration or commiseration. But unless the contents of that speech are echoed in a clear and cogent programme of Government which has a meaningful effect on the fiscal landscape, it will be worth, sadly, very little.

Unsurprisingly, Conference also presents an ideal opportunity to talk tough on justice. Incoming Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, proposed new and sweeping self defence laws which would finally achieve… exactly what our current self defence laws do. A pressing and urgent legislative priority, clearly. It must have seemed more comfortable territory than the pomp of the Opening of the Legal Year, at which he was sworn in. Ever one for apposite wisdom, The Lord Chief Justice gave the incoming Chancellor a warm welcome, reminding him that the last two non-lawyers had ended up in prison, a fate he was sure would not befall this one.

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a proposal for victims of crime to be able to choose a convicted defendant’s punishment (they would be presented with a list of potential community penalties, the choice to be between punitive and restorative options). As we all know, vengeance has always been considered the most effective basis for our sentencing system...as reflected well in our prison population.

Silly season at an end, bleary eyed delegates (and spare a thought for those of us - well done TC - who attended all three) return to the warm and safe confines of the Westminster bubble to resume their usual battles. And eyes will, momentarily, be cast westwards, as Washington Watch takes precedence, and a presidential election which will have an enormous impact on global politics dominates the news pages. Barack or Mitt? Cast your (symbolic) votes...and wait for the tea party to begin.

Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.
Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.