SOLOMON HUGHES comes to terms with the strange sight of the leadership of the Tory party spending time at their own conference doing stand-up gigs for autocratic oil firms, dodgy supermarkets, offshore finance centres, arms firms, energy giants...
There were many strange sights at the recent Conservative conference in Birmingham.
The Tories, for example, erected a full-size fake Coronation Street style pub, The Tax & Spend, to make fun of Ed Multiband and Ed Balls. It was even stocked with real beer.
But the strangest sight is the leadership of the Tory party spending time at their own conference doing stand-up gigs for autocratic oil firms, dodgy supermarkets, offshore finance centres, arms firms, energy giants and the like. That’s what happens on the Conservative conference fringe.
Odd things like the fake “Labour” pub or the Thatcher baby’s bibs on sale at the stall next door do at least represent the actual emotional and intellectual concerns of Conservative Party members.
But the gigs-for-corporations just show how hollowed-out politics has become.
The Tories are drawn to whoever has the cash, while their own members just get dragged along for the ride.
Early on I saw Sajid Javid, culture secretary, doing his turn for the European Azerbaijan Society. There weren’t a huge number of Azerbaijani delegates, but Azerbaijan does have a huge amount of money. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian ruler, President Aliyev, doesn’t share his nation’s oil wealth with his people — they just get phoney elections and the secret police.
But some of the money that isn’t siphoned off by the elite is used to win friends abroad.
The European Azerbaijan Society is run by the son of the Azerbaijani “Minister for Emergency Situations” — one of Azerbaijan’s rich and powerful elite.
Their lobbyists promised delegates a “drinks reception” with Azerbaijani wine and brandy. In the end these exotic drinks didn’t turn up, but huge amounts of wine and beer did. So the delegates got a free piss up, addressed by Sajid Javid — for the Azerbaijanis schmoozing with a Cabinet minister was worth the cash.
The gig was co-organised with Conservative Home, a leading Tory grassroots organisation funded by Lord Ashcroft. Before Javid spoke, Tim Goodman of Conservative Home told delegates they should “indicate your gratitude for the free booze the European Azerbaijan Society has given you.”
Lionel Zetter, the Azerbaijanis’ chief lobbyist in Britain, told delegates that he was one of them, his “shirt is pink but his heart is blue.” Then Javid said the Conservatives would win the next election.
This is called “soft diplomacy,” where Azerbaijani dictators hijack the Tory party with a bucket-load of booze.
Another leading Tory, Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi — a rising star who is on David Cameron’s “advisory policy board” — did his talking for Tesco.
Zahawi spoke on a Tesco-funded platform, in front of a Tesco banner, alongside Adrian Letts, a Tesco executive.
Normally a top Tory appearing on a supermarket platform would be fine. They love big profit-driven corporations. Except Tesco has just revealed that it was faking profits with false figures in its accounts.
So Zahawi wanted to talk about small companies innovating, while performing for a big company that was faking. It didn’t help that before Zahawi spoke, Adrian Letts made the meeting feel like we were trapped in a long advert for his firm.
Letts mentioned Tesco again and again, claiming: “Tesco has a long history of investment in innovation.”
Given Tesco’s most recent innovation in their wonky accounts, this was a bit embarrassing — an embarrassment that the panel politely ignored, leaving delegates to joke about the dodgy accounts in their questions.
Liz Truss was introduced as a “fast rising Tory star” at my next fringe meeting — she has risen a little further than Zahawi, who like her was elected in 2010.
She is now Environment Secretary. Her high office didn’t stop her performing for a small offshore interest. Truss appeared on the fringe courtesy of the States of Jersey. She spoke on a Jerseysponsored panel in front of a “States of Jersey” banner alongside Senator Phil Ozouf, a Jersey treasury minister.
Ozouf told us: “You may wonder why a Jersey senator is in Birmingham.” Well I didn’t really.
Thanks to public outrage, even George Osborne had to talk about cracking down on tax avoidance in the main hall. Jersey lives off tax avoidance, so their paying for a meeting with a minister is part of their current lobbying to keep Jersey’s tax tricks out of any legislative crackdown.
Ozouf said Jersey “are effectively a capital warehouse” supplying Britain. In fact they are an offshore warehouse, sheltering capital’s profits from British taxes.
Truss used the platform to declare she was “proud of our support for free enterprise, proud of our support for the profit motive” and demanded “more competition, more markets, more freedom” and “removing the red tape” to get recovery — which was music to the ears of the Jersey senator, as his little island views tax as a load of unnecessary red tape.
The feeling that actual Conservative delegates are just spectators between this business lobbying was reinforced by the questions from the floor. A prospective parliamentary candidate and some members who had been canvassing complained that low wages and hard times were making it hard to make people vote Tory.
One delegate complained that the “perception is that London and the south-east is growing, but the rest of the country isn’t, and that CEOs are taking multimillion pound pay rises, meaning even someone as useless as Miliband can make progress.”
Another argued that “we are going to sell capitalism to the country everybody has to feel they have access, but a lot of people still feel they are pressing their noses against the windows.”
The delegates’ worries that their free market wasn’t working were brushed aside by Truss, who preferred to share giggles and jokes with the senator from Jersey than listen to her own members.
There were dozens more corporate-backed meetings like this. Of course most Conservative delegates are more in tune with the big corporations who dominate the “fringe” of their conference than Labour delegates. But the Conservative conference fringe still shows corporations hijacking hollowedout politics for the price of a glass of wine and a canapé.