There is no more vital tradition in our democracy than the brazen leadership bid disguised as a conference speech. Labour has had a few, of course, but the art has always been best performed by the Tories, who can’t go away together for three days without trying to kill each other.
This year’s event in Manchester had been depressingly empty of such moments. Jeremy Hunt didn’t even seem to want his own job, never mind anyone else’s. Kemi Badenoch failed to take off. But on Tuesday afternoon, Suella Braverman delivered for us.
Suddenly we could see why people imagine her as a future leader
For three days, Rishi Sunak had been reminding Conservatives that his main skill is making people feel bad about being Tories. On Wednesday, he will have to make a speech that does something else, and the Home Secretary has made his job a lot harder with a 25-minute address that delighted the audience and made it quite clear that, should there be a vacancy at the top, she is available.
Braverman had been preceded by Alex Chalk, the Lord Chancellor, who said Britain should take pride in our prominent part in creating “the international rules-based order”. We didn’t have to wait long to find out what the Home Secretary thought of all that nonsense.
Before she came on stage, we got a little video, Suella: The Movie. It featured snazzy music, Border Force boats, and Paul Kagame. You have to be pretty confident of yourself and your audience to put up a picture of your handshake with an African dictator, but Braverman knows her crowd. You don’t hear people whining about the international rules-based order in Rwanda. Not for long, anyway.
They were wild for her even before she began. And from her coy opening – “Hello conference, good to see you” – she had them in the palm of her hand.
She was a woman transformed. Gone was the brittle figure we are used to seeing giving awkward, evasive answers to TV interviewers. She had been made over to within an inch of her life. Her suit perfectly offset the blue background. Her teeth gleamed. Her usually flat hair flowed behind her like she was auditioning for a Charlie’s Angels reboot. However much all this cost, it was worth every penny.
Her delivery was warm and fluent. No one who had seen her in the Commons would accuse her of lacking confidence or aggression, but here she seemed at ease. Suddenly we could see why people imagine her as a future leader.
The message was clear: Braverman isn’t squeamish
It helped, of course, that she was playing the greatest hits before a home crowd. If there’s one thing that Tory members like to hear, it’s that they’re not racists. Jacob Rees-Mogg got warm applause for telling a fringe meeting this on Monday, but they’re self-aware enough to know that it sounds better coming from Braverman.
Critics of the government, she said, were everywhere. “All of them bleating the same incessant accusation: Racist. Racist. Racist. They’ve always used that smear.”
They had tried it, she said, against Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron. “It didn’t work,” she went on. “It won’t work against Rishi Sunak. And it won’t work against me.” There we had the line of succession, the genealogy of Conservative leadership, stretching back through Thatch to Winston, and forward to Suella. Subtle it wasn’t.
But then subtlety isn’t Braverman’s long suit. In the past, she said, the Conservatives had been “far too squeamish” talking about immigration. This is a selective reading of history for a party whose past MPs include Enoch Powell, but the message was clear: Braverman isn’t squeamish.
“There are far, far more people in poorer countries who would love to move to Britain than could ever be accommodated,” she said. “Even if we concreted over the countryside, turned our cities into one vast building site, and erected skyscrapers from Eastbourne to Elgin.” Never mind a skyscraper, try getting permission to build a bungalow in Eastbourne. If we really want to deter migrants, we shouldn’t bother threatening them with Rwanda, we should simply drop leaflets on Calais explaining our planning system.
Do the police shoot people? Good
We were into the red meat now. Migrant hordes bearing down on Britain, protected by expensive lawyers like Keir Starmer (and, let’s face it, Alex Chalk). The Human Rights Act, she said, should be known as the Criminal Rights Act. “It’s time to worry less about the rights of sexual predators and more about the rights of victims,” she said, and the conference let out a deep, long, guttural roar of pleasure.
Do the police shoot people? Good. After the last couple of years, you really have to squint at the Metropolitan Police to see a force that’s simply been too restrained, but that’s the Home Secretary’s view.
Elsewhere in the conference, hapless London Mayoral candidate Susan Hall had got into trouble for saying that Jewish people were “frightened” of Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Braverman was having none of it. “They’ve already started the character assassination against Sue,” she said. “The distortions. The insults. The lies.” Hall’s critics on Tuesday included a Tory peer and that well-known socialist front group the Board of Deputies of British Jews, but the Home Secretary assured us that it was all “smears”.
What of Braverman’s own critics? “They are entitled to their beliefs,” she said. Though not for long. A minute or two later one of them was bundled out of the hall for saying, quite loudly, “there’s no such thing as gender ideology”. He turned out to be Andrew Boff, the Tory chairman of the London Assembly. He’s presumably on his way to Kigali right now.
By this stage Braverman had got onto a long section of attacks on Labour’s various Woke Crimes. It was vital to keep Starmer out of power, she said. “Things are bad enough already.” It’s possible that this will be the Tory election slogan. It certainly seems to be what the Cabinet all think.
Labour, she said, “is the party of pressure groups, rich zealots, and trade union activists.” It was run by people who have second homes “in Tuscany or the Dordogne” and “have no use for a British passport”. It’s possible that she didn’t intend this as a drive-by on our Green Card-wielding prime minister and his Santa Monica apartment, but let’s pay her the compliment of assuming it was entirely deliberate.
“But, you know,” she went on, “the Conservative Party is also a kind of trade union. Because we are the trade union of the British people.” This would at least explain why they’ve brought the country to its knees.
“Rise like lions,” she urged the hall, quoting Shelley, and for the first time this week they really did. People were on their feet. They think it’s all over. Is it? Over to you, Rishi.
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