The most boring Tory party conference since 1834 suddenly sprung into life yesterday with a sensationally entertaining row, about a cat. Attempting to illustrate problems with the human rights culture in our judicial system, the Home Secretary referenced a case in which a foreign national had allegedly been given leave to remain because he owned a cat. This was supposedly enough to give him – the foreign gentleman, not the cat – the right to stay in Britain.
All this had been reported at the time with great excitement by various newspapers. One even claimed to have a picture of the cat, helpfully blacking out the cat’s face to protect its identity.
But as soon as May came off stage and went to tour the TV studios it was apparent that there was a problem. The Judicial Office, which speaks for the judges, issued a terse statement: “The decision in this case had nothing to do with the cat”.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said he had had a Victor Meldrew moment (“I don’t believe it”) when he heard that May had cited the cat in her speech. Apparently he even has a bet on with May about the veracity of the feline-related anecdote. "He told her, but she wouldn't listen," says a Clarke ally.
Fleet Street then set off in hot pursuit of the moggy, with large sums of money being offered for a full sit-down interview.
So who's right, May or Clarke?
The cat does seem to have been mentioned in one of the judgements concerned, but it was not the prime factor in the judge's decision.
Number 10 types declared May the winner, but that was mainly because it regards Ken as being on the way out and preferred to try and protect May from reputational damage.
The lesson – for Theresa May – is that making a conference speech in government is quite a different exercise from doing so in opposition. The authority of the office is at stake. Sloppiness gets you found out. If you're going to make jokes about cats you had better get them checked out properly by advisers in advance.
Don't mention Ed
The Prime Minister’s team are toying with simply not mentioning Ed Miliband or the Labour party in his speech today. This is what Labour’s George Brown – former Foreign Secretary and one of the 1960s leading drunks – used to call a “complete ignoral”. Number 10‘s thinking is is that not mentioning Miliband would imply that he is an irrelevant muppet, that Labour’s mistakes speak for themselves and that David Cameron is too busy being Prime Ministerial to pay him any attention. I do wonder about the wisdom of such an approach. Of course, many voters say they don’t like party leaders making sharp attacks on their rivals. But without a bit of red meat and vitriol thrown in, leaders’ speeches at party conference can be desperately dull affairs.
Scottish Tory leadership – excitement builds
Who will be unlucky enough to win the race to be leader of the Scottish Tory party? The contest is hotting up, with Ruth Davidson emerging as a strong rival to front-runner Murdo Fraser and two other people whose names I’m struggling to remember. Davidson is highly impressive and I suspect she has the X-factor.
But I hear that the electorate is actually very small. Membership in Scotland is down to around 8,000, with only 5,000 of those expected to cast a vote.
Says a Scottish Tory: “That means that the winner of the contest will be the person who can persuade 2500 people.”
The party north of the border is getting close to the point where leadership election candidates could save time and go and visit each of the members at home.
Asked in an interview yesterday why the Tories are doing so badly in Scotland, David Cameron’s response was disarming: “How long have you got?”
Tyrie hostage video – latest
After he emerged from a government re-education programme run by Steve Hilton on Monday to say that his doubts about the Chancellor’s growth programme had vanished mysteriously, Andrew Tyrie MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, is getting stick from his colleagues.
Says a veteran Tory MP: “Issuing slavishly loyal statements is henceforth going to be known as ‘doing a Tyrie’.”
Another Tory MP with ambitions on the Treasury Select Committee grabbed me at a drinks party and put on his most concerned face. “It is very, very sad. Andrew had such credibility. I fear he has done himself immense damage.”