Foolish conference swap hands Labour the last word

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer

Why have the Conservatives allowed the chronology of their party conference to be changed this year? Until now, the Tories have been the last in the annual sequence. The Liberal Democrats have come first, then Labour, then Conservatives. This has contributed to a feeling that the order of the dates represents a rising scale of power. This year, however, Labour will round off the season. You can be sure Sir Keir Starmer will take advantage of his moment next week to wrap himself in a statesman’s mantle.

There is certainly rhetorical advantage in coming last. How many Tory conference speeches have I heard containing phrases like: “Last week, in Brighton, the ‘brothers’ told us they wanted to renationalise British industry [or whatever].” It is easier to mock opponents after they have said something than it is by guessing what they might say next.

Coming at the end works particularly well when the party is in government. It then gets the last word before the autumn return of Parliament.

I have been trying to find out why Labour was allowed to swap dates. No one seems very clear. People tell me it is “all 10 Downing Street’s fault”. Those close to 10 Downing Street mutter about it being “all Boris’s fault” (a convenient explanation given for virtually everything at present).

I find this apparent lack of care puzzling. In our media-obsessed age, the timing of a political party’s one moment of prolonged, guaranteed coverage should be a matter of first importance. Yet no one in the hierarchy seems to “own” this question.

It is one of the biggest changes I have noticed since I started to cover politics in 1979 that the Tory “machine”, so dominant then, is now so weak. The “voluntary party”, as it was known, had a strong life and culture of its own and a vast mass membership to match. It arranged most of its business, including the annual conference, and the party leader had to treat it with a certain respect. Now it is a sort of ghost.

Opportunities in Africa

It has been noticed that French power in the belt across sub-Saharan Africa has collapsed. Resentment at what is seen as French post-colonial high-handedness over many years has led to several coups. The concept of “Francafrique” seems, if I may use a French word, a bit passé.

This is a bad thing to the extent that it helps Russia and China in the African continent. But I wonder if there might be new African opportunities for Britain if the French are out of favour.

After the recent Moroccan earthquake, it was striking that, out of about 100 offers of help from foreign countries, King Mohammed VI, who is an executive ruler, not a figurehead, accepted only four – those from UAE, Qatar, Spain and Britain – all of them kingdoms. He rejected France’s offer, even though he lives in France for part of each year.

Meanwhile, Britain and Morocco are planning to go ahead with the Xlinks Power project, a plan for the world’s longest (more than 2,300 miles) undersea power cable, from Tan-Tan in south-western Morocco to the north Devon coast. It will supply Moroccan wind and solar power. The eventual idea is to meet 7.5 per cent of British electricity consumption needs.

Morocco is the most stable and pro-Western of north African countries, and cooperates with us closely over security questions. Encouraged by its new development plan, which favours “adopting Anglo-Saxon models”, young Moroccans are now choosing to learn English, rather than French. This language switch has already happened in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, notably Rwanda.

There is even talk of some sort of Moroccan relationship with the Commonwealth. Further south, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009. Togo and Gabon were admitted last year. All three are traditionally francophone. The attraction for new entrants seems to be a wide, loose anglophone association based on cooperation rather than hard power.

All this raises the question of how active post-Brexit Britain is being at welcoming these trends. Not enough, I sense, though the new Energy Secretary, Claire Coutinho, has moved fast to advance Xlinks.

It is true, where the Commonwealth is concerned, that there is always some delicacy to the situation. Our King is its head and its secretariat is in London, but it is not in any way run by Britain. If we tried to flex political muscle in that forum, there would be strong resistance. On the other hand, it would be foolish not to grasp the hand of friendship when it is offered.

There are several reasons – including language, geography and post-Brexit independence – why non-European countries might prefer working with Britain in the 21st century to doing the bidding of France. We should be advancing those reasons.

China in Cambridge

Writing in these pages yesterday, Deborah Prentice, the new vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, emphasised the importance of free speech. This was a welcome change: her predecessor had attempted to redefine free speech in a way which would dramatically have curtailed it by saying it must not be allowed if it caused “offence”. Luckily, the dons defeated him.

However, there was one word missing from Professor Prentice’s piece: China. In recent years, Cambridge’s lack of due diligence towards the large sums of Chinese money it accepts has severely compromised the university’s academic freedom. China, which means, in effect, the Chinese Communist Party, has paid several Cambridge institutions, and they have danced to its tune. The new vice-chancellor should stop the music.

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