UK Politics

Tory conference: Starkey lets Cameron have it

David Starkey
David Starkey said a return to the values of Churchill and Disraeli would help the Tories

"Off with his head," they might have yelled a few hundred years ago.

Historian David Starkey was in town to tell the Conservatives how to get their act together and he wasn't sparing the grandees' feelings.

The Tudor specialist seemed to set up his own Star Chamber as he sat in judgement.

London Mayor Boris Johnson was dismissed as a "jester-despot".

Prime Minister David Cameron had "absolutely no strategy" for running the country.

The Lib Dems were dealt with in tones of contempt more commonly reserved for serial killers or tax collectors.

'Too hostile'

But Dr Starkey, a Tory supporter appearing at a conference fringe event organised by the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, reserved the most venom for the "Guardian-reading middle class".

He warned that Mr Cameron's attempts to reach this group by re-branding the Conservatives - in a reversal of Tony Blair's election strategy - were "pointless".

"You can capture the soft right from the left but you can't capture the soft left over to the right, as David Cameron is finding out. They're far too hostile [to Tories]."

It was time to re-engage with the working class, a group the 19th Century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli argued had more in common with their rulers than the middle ranks.

Dr Starkey, famed for his acerbic comments on shows such as BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze and BBC One's Question Time, said: "One-nation Toryism is a term bandied around a very great deal at the moment...

"But it's not an appeal to the central ground. That's exactly what it is not.

"The middle ground is occupied by the liberal middle class. One-nation Toryism is essentially the elite appealing to the bottom."

'Sad bunch'

What the working class needed was some more explicit "nationalism" of the type demonstrated by Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, Dr Starkey said, and some policies which showed the Tories were on people's side.

Bringing back grammar schools and creating an English Parliament were two suggestions warmly received by the audience at Manchester's Comedy Club, the venue chosen for the fringe meeting.

It is more than a year since the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, but Dr Starkey regarded the arrangement as a demonstration of failure.

The Tories had been the "natural party of government" most of the time since the extension of the franchise caused by the 1884 Reform Act, he argued.

Dr Starkey was scathing of the coalition: "I quote my great friend [the former Chancellor] Norman Lamont: 'It is in office, but not in power.'

"The Tories were defeated in the last election. The year 2012 will see the 20th anniversary of the last time the Tories won a majority at a general election.

"To find a comparison, we have to go back to the 18th Century."

One member of the audience asked Dr Starkey if it was worth voting for the UK Independence Party to get some more traditional Tory policies.

"UKIP is too silly for words," he replied.

Apologising in advance to any MPs in the audience, he described today's parliamentarians as "an awfully sad bunch".

If there were any watching, none dared to defend themselves.

It takes a brave person to defy the court of Dr Starkey.