Back to the future. A Tory government in its extended death throes. Any number of sex and sleaze scandals. Disengaged backbench MPs planning for life outside Westminster. A weak prime minister totally out of ideas. Just reacting to the latest rebellion. No discernible coherent policies. Sound familiar?
Take Thursday. One MP has the whip withdrawn after a police complaint. Michelle Mone swears blind there was nothing wrong with her for trousering £29m for recommending a startup company that specialised in useless PPE. Headless gowns for headless chickens.
Then the government’s new energy policy. To reopen a coalmine in Cumbria. But a very green one because no machinery will be used to extract the coal. Instead men and boys will be sent underground with only a pick. So only producing 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Take that Cop26. Nothing that planting a few twigs can’t offset.
A plan so wilfully stupid that even Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, couldn’t really be bothered to defend it. Forced to give a statement to the Commons, he didn’t even bother to prepare a copy of his speech to give to the opposition as he was obliged to do by parliamentary protocol. Instead he just said “whatever” and winged it.
If that wasn’t enough mid-1990s for you, just take a look at Labour. Here is a party having to pinch itself. Three years ago it looked like it was on its knees; destined to be out of power for at least another 10-15 years. Now it’s looking and acting like a government in waiting. It’s almost as if Labour has a monopoly on thought, leaving no synaptic contact left for the Tories. The quantity theory of energy.
On Monday, Keir Starmer was up in Leeds with Gordon Brown to launch Labour’s plans for constitutional reform. On Thursday Starmer and his top team were in Canary Wharf – where else? – for what had been grandly called Labour’s Business Conference 2022. Safe to say there hadn’t been one in 2021. Rather this was an extended schmoozefest. A chance for Labour to convince business leaders it had their interests at heart. And a chance for business to get close to the people they believed would form the next government.
The conference took place in a glass atrium. More like a railway station than an events hub. But it was the hottest ticket in town. All week City PRs had been trying to get tickets and the venue was at its 350 capacity with 100 left on the waiting list. Large banners draped down the walls proudly listing its sponsors. HSBC. SSE. Mastercard.
You could sense the physical attraction. Just as in the New Labour years, Labour were thrilled to be taken seriously by business. And business was high on the proximity to power. Why donate to the Tories when they’re washed up? Now was the time to invest in the future. The dawn of a new age. And the men and women being courted with free Parker pens, leatherette notebooks and lukewarm coffee were the new bright young things.
If an identical event at which the same people had said the same things had taken place a year ago, then the conference would have died on its feet. The 36 tables would have been half full and those that had turned up would have been wondering why they had bothered. But now everyone was just pleased to be there. To be part of something. An inner circle.
There were no great truths to be heard. The same bollocks that everyone always comes out with at these sorts of events was repeated endlessly. Growing and supporting business. Innovating. Endless driving metaphors. A dashboard for something. A road map for something else. Steering a course. But the audience was up for it. They believed. May the divine verities reign over them. Love was all around.
Sadiq Khan got things under way with a brief warmup speech. Next up was Amanda Blanc, Aviva CEO. Blank by name and blank by nature. Then the star attraction. Starmer’s microphone was turned up to 11 and he at least sounded passionate. Confident in what he was saying. Not so long ago he was rather more diffident. Now even he thinks the next election is his to lose. Not that he had a lot to say. His real mission was to be. To be the leader business wanted. He didn’t disappoint. He was one of them.
After a few media questions – mainly about strikes – which were easily, if blandly, batted away, Starmer then went into an equally unenlightening Q&A with Times Radio’s Ayesha Hazarika. The first question came from a woman who declared she was a “High Value Manufacturing Catapult”. Me neither.
The conference ticked along at pace. A message from Ian Stuart, the head of HSBC UK, followed by a boilerplate speech from Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, to close with a pointless round table about startups in which no one was really interested. A discussion enlivened only by one woman slagging off the banks and the CBI. Then it all rather petered out. It was only a matter of time before attendees were invited to join breakout groups.
But none of this really mattered. Because this wasn’t a real conference. It was a meta conference. A conference designed with all the hallmarks of an actual conference but with nothing of any consequence said. All that was important was that the conference had taken place. That people had come and Labour and business had gathered together in a sacred communion. Being there, to prove their joint commitment to one another, was all that counted. And by that reckoning it had been a total success.