Diplomatic foot forward

Boris the bull in Tory shop fails to unsettle PM, for now

Britain's ruling Tory party's annual conference this year was quite a colourful spectacle, high on showbiz both from Prime Minister Theresa May's camp and from the rival camp led by Boris Johnson who shook the event like a bull in the Tory shop. The former Foreign Secretary, Boris, as he is popularly known, drew a bigger crowd than the Prime Minister herself. With his ringing shouts of "chuck Chequers" (May's Chequers blueprint for Brexit), he looked menacingly close to chucking her out of office. But she is no easy pushover. Instead, she put out her best foot forward and tip-toed into the conference hall dancing to Abba music and to the resounding applause of her party faithful.

The party conference in Birmingham was a good show all round as well-heeled Tories love dancing razzmatazz. But the battle royal lies quite some time ahead till late November when the European Union leaders reveal their hand in Brussels and when Brexit negotiations enter the final stage. Even that Brexit deal, if there is one, will have to wait for the UK Parliament's acceptance or rejection of EU's reply.

Meanwhile, the home show goes on with each wing of the Tory party, besides the others including the Labour and the Liberals, making their own pitch.

Mrs May did not honour Borris by mentioning his name. She simply said it was " no surprise we have had a range of different views expressed," adding "But my job as Prime Minister is to do what I believe to be in the national interest." She threw good chunks of her attack on the Labour Party in its current avatar under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. What a fall from old Labour's vintage leaders, she lamented with not so subtle sarcasm. "The heirs of Hugh Gaitskell and Barbara Castle, Dennis Healey and John Smith were there but not on the front bench" in today's parliament. "Their faces stare blankly from the rows behind while another party occupies prime position: the Jeremy Corbyn party."

Rubbing it in further, May rhetorically asked: "Would Clement Attlee, Churchill's trusted deputy during the Second World War, tell the British Jews they didn't know the meaning of antisemitism?" (There has been a well-coordinated attempt at painting Corbyn antisemitic for his pointers to Israeli government's excesses from time to time. But everything seems to be fair in love and war.

May was projecting herself at her patriotic best with her call for unity and her party working " not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules." Working for everyone seemed to be her new mantra. And she promised an end to austerity which had been pursued under the Tory rule for over eight years during her premiership and David Cameron's before her. Wages have been falling for the last decade since the crash of 2008 and economists wonder how she would end austerity even while her chancellor, Phillip Hammond, talked of "balanced budget" and the impact of a Brexit deal or no deal.

The promised end of austerity by next year's spending review will take another year or two to kick in but politicians, too often, make the promises look like a reality within instant reach. May's promise of removing the cap on local councils or municipal corporations' ability to raise funds to build more houses inevitably will be a slow process with no immediate results to show. The BBC's economics editor, Kamal Ahmed, soon to be promoted as the corporation' s director, said it was just a promise -- all in the future. The current and immediate near future financial scenario made the onset of "acche din" or good days rather unlikely.

Labour leader John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, was bluntly scathing. "Theresa May's claim that austerity is over is a con. If the Prime Minister wants to back up her words with action, Philip Hammond (the Chancellor) should announce immediately that the cuts scheduled for the next four years will be cancelled. If he cannot or will not, then Theresa May's announcement today was not just empty, it was clearly a deceitful attempt to trick the public."

In a grand gesture to minority communities, Prime Minister May had told her conference audience that her party believed in unity and equality. In an obvious reference to the Muslim community, she said: " If your dad came on a plane from Pakistan, you can become Home Secretary (like the incumbent Sajid Javed sitting in the audience)." Similarly, she praised her party for nominating a Windrush descendant from West Indies, Shaun Bailey, as the Tory candidate for the next Mayor of London.

Ironically, both instances seem to have come to a cropper. Mrs May in her earlier role as home secretary for six years is known as the author of "hostile environment " policy for immigrants. John Crace, a veteran sketch writer for the Guardian, quipped with reference to Sajid Javed: " Yes (he could become Home Secretary after his dad landed from Pakistan). And once the government's proposed immigration plans come into force, your dad will be on the first plane back to Pakistan."

The other instance of nominating West Indian origin Tory candidate Shaun Bailey for mayor of London has blown up too wide involving Hindu and Muslim communities. Writing for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank in 2005, Bailey lamented the lack of preference shown to young black people who had common Christian and even English language bonds with Britain over other immigrant communities with no such religious or linguistic links.

Taking umbrage at Bailey's alleged insinuation, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: " For a mayoral candidate to have used such grotesque language about Muslims and Hindus is totally unacceptable. Bailey needs to apologise and distance himself from this divisive bigotry." The council would write to Tory party if it was aware of Bailey's remarks before his selection as a candidate for the London job.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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