I'm glad I went to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last September. No, really. It's the sort of thing one ought to do at least once. And I saw and heard some interesting things and some reasonable people. Chris Grayling, currently the Shadow Home Secretary, popped up at numerous meetings and talked a fair bit of sense, at least to my mind. I was particularly struck by his contributions to a panel on work and welfare, where he talked about the need to 'reinvigorate social mobility’ and spoke with what sounded like sincere feeling about the 'appalling worklessness’ of failed estates left to fester as ‘separate worlds’ in our society. Being a Tory, he advocated more back-to-work support for people wanting to get themselves sorted out, and big sticks to be wielded on non-participants. But he didn't mind when someone suggested that he and James Purnell at Work & Pensions didn't seem to have too many vital differences on policy. ‘I hope there’s not many’, Grayling offered. (He testified too to the influence of David Freud, a Blair-appointed government welfare advisor who duly jumped ship to the Tories this year.)
Where I found Grayling most human and appealing was when he argued that beggars, addicts, thieves and other individuals with form in the criminal justice system could yet be wooed back into meaningful work, albeit under a form of threat in the shape of loss of benefit entitlements. A guy from NAFCAS in the attention argued that some such people are hair-trigger types who might get pushed over the edge by such hardline strictures. But Grayling was quietly, ruefully insistent that there had to be a stick behind the carrot - there just had to be… He struck me as the most mild-mannered guy one could imagine donning the judge's black hanging cap.
But all of those good impressions seem soft and slack to me now, following Grayling's utterly foolish Silly Season argument that the American TV show The Wire functions as a portrait of contemporary inner-city Britain. I can't improve on Alastair Campbell's assault on said comments here. But I hope Grayling will think again, and put that bit of opportunistic shallowness behind him.