Whenever I hear a cabinet minister speak, it brings to mind the Earl of Rochester’s famous epitaph for Charles II: We have a pretty witty king, whose word no man relies on / He never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one. The exception is the Prime Minister whose oratory is as silly as his actions.
This conference season has been a case in point. The Home Secretary Theresa May has delivered a homily to the virtues of border control having just overseen a record annual inward migration of 636,000 people (330,000 net). In the five years she has held her post more than one million migrants have arrived net of emigration and the closest she has come to meeting the party’s self-imposed target of a five figure net annual inward migration was in December 2012 when she failed by only 139 per cent.
“There is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.” This is an exciting quote for newspaper pundits. Does it signify a recantation of the ‘nasty party’ speech? Is Mrs May seeking to position herself internally as an anti-moderniser? Is she, in that hideous phrase, ‘on manoeuvres’ when it comes to the leadership race?
The only thing that the speech cannot be made to signal is impending action. Mrs May has shown no sign of supporting a British exit from the EU. She has not clamped down meaningfully on immigration from outside the EU. The most eye-catching proposal she is now advancing is that people from Spain will not be able to claim asylum, addressing a problem which does not exist. In short, she has not presented either a strategy or even a set of disconnected but practical measures which might materially reduce immigration. In the past year, Britain has grown by an additional 170,000 Romanians, 128,000 Polish and 44,000 Bulgarians. These arrivals are outside the Home Secretary’s direct control, but the 40,000 Indians, 15,000 Pakistanis and 13,000 Nigerians are not. The upshot of this is that Mrs May either wants to restrict immigration but is incapable, or does not wish to do so and is insincere – in practical terms it does not make an iota of difference which one is true.
It is more clear cut with the Chancellor. The nonsense about paying back the deficit and cutting the debt is appallingly cynical. Having secured a mandate for austerity at the 2010 election, the Chancellor proceeded to add 50 per cent, or half a trillion pounds, to the national debt in the last parliament. The British state still spends £75 bn more than it raises in taxation every year. There is still no fiscal discipline, and no effort is being made to instil any. To the extent that austerity has had an impact on public spending, it is in providing a smokescreen to shift money to socially progressive areas of the budget – out of defence and into the NHS, and so forth. In doing so the Chancellor has secured the worst of all worlds – the public goodwill towards the austerity programme and acknowledgement of the need for a smaller state is burnt out, but the public finances are in the worst state in peacetime history.
At least the Prime Minister no longer feels a need to hide his New England Democrat’s platform beneath Conservative rhetoric. His speech yesterday was the closest he has come to setting out his true priorities in government – he was long on homosexual weddings and restricting freedom of expression outside a liberal straitjacket in order to fight those modern bogeymen, discrimination and extremism. He was short on the tens of thousands of death his un-strategic meddling has led to in Libya and Syria, on defence, on the decline of the traditional family, on the political freedoms we have vested in Europe and in the future of a country which is becoming a place rather than a nation, given mass immigration.
The challenge of Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to Labour leader for disillusioned conservatives like me was whether we would be able to grit our teeth and go home, whether the alternative was now so dreadful that the Tory modernisers were the better bet. The conference has given us our answer. The party machinery is in the hands of a mixture of fantasists and those marked with the soppy socialism of inherited wealth. The Conservatives are now a party of the Left. It is a tragedy for Britain.