“Don’t be defined by your competitors.” That was the answer of Dr Liam Fox to the question of how the Conservatives should respond to Jeremy Corbyn, debated yesterday afternoon before a packed audience in the ConHome marquee. Conservatives, Fox added, should “not try to fill anyone else’s space: we have to be true to what we believe in”. A second member of the panel, Ian Birrell, who used to write speeches for David Cameron, recalled first coming across Corbyn in north London in 1985, and said that “even then he was seen as a bit of an irrelevance and a joke”. But Birrell warned that “some of the things he’s putting his fingers on do have some resonance”.
George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman, remembered William Hague’s warning that the Conservative Party has “only two modes – panic and complacency”: the danger now is of the latter. The fourth member of the panel, Chris White, who used to work in the Tory Whips’ Office, said the party needs “to do a hell of a lot more” to win seats such as Newcastle-under-Lyme (currently held by Labour with a majority of 635), and to “define the Conservatives as the party of the North”.
Dr Alex Burghart, who fought Corbyn in Islington North in the last general election, reported that although the man’s political ideas are crackers, his sincere personality “may attract some votes”, which means it is important to attack his ideas, and not “attack the man”. Jeremy Thomas observed that Corbyn talks in terms of right and wrong, and urged Conservatives to speak in terms of morality, not just of profit. Fox responded that “the Conservative Party is very often guilty of doing the right thing but not explaining why”.
Mike Greene, from Dorset, wondered what chances there are of Labour MPs defecting. Eaton doubted any would, for to do so would seem to confirm the accusation that “they are Tories in disguise”. Many of them have safe Labour seats, which they would not hold as Conservatives, and they are in any case optimistic they will regain control of the Labour Party. White added that “it can be a terribly lonely business, defecting”. Eaton remarked that the greatest threat to the unity of the Conservatives is the EU referendum.
Professor Tim Bale asked a final, highly ingenious question: “Should the Conservative Party be thinking more about how they respond to the next Labour leader?” Bale pointed out that Labour had been at a loss when Margaret Thatcher was replaced by John Major, and suggested that if Labour replaced Corbyn in 2018 with Dan Jarvis, the former Parachute Regiment officer who is MP for Barnsley, that would send “a 40,000-volt shock”. But the panel reckoned Labour was unlikely to do anything half so sensible.