At the 1981 Tory party conference, Norman Tebbit had a dig at unemployed rioters by telling them to follow the lead of his father, who 30 years earlier “got on his bike” and found work.
The famous attack by one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers has been upended for the pandemic era as Conservatives have spent large chunks of their 2021 summit being similarly antagonistic.
Much of it revolves around Boris Johnson’s centrepiece message of conference, which is to reverse the trend of working from home. Or, as the Daily Mail front page screamed on Tuesday morning: PM TO TELL BRITAIN: GET BACK TO WORK.
Let’s not forget, this is a government whose WFH advice has changed like the weather over the last 18 months. It also, just two weeks ago, unveiled plans to make flexible working the default. The first line of the announcement on its official website says: “Government announces plans to make the right to request flexible working a day one right.”
Nonetheless, the policy did not stop Tory chairman Oliver Dowden on Tuesday saying the government should lead by example by ensuring that civil servants return to in-real-life working.
Channeling Tebbit (deliberately or otherwise), he added: “People need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks.”
As many pointed out, this was at odds with what the senior civil servant in Dowden’s former department has been up to, and displays little understanding of what the average worker actually earns.
Aside from suggesting public sector workers need to up their game despite heroic efforts to tackle Covid-19, the party has also been having fun taking aim at the BBC.
Against the backdrop of the broadcaster’s next licence fee settlement, new culture secretary Nadine Dorries – who comes from a working-class background in Liverpool – hit out at the lack of opportunities in the arts and sports for children with similar upbringings.
She went on to suggest that the BBC’s workforce is made up of people whose parents worked for the corporation – a jibe that many staffers were anxious to correct.
Dorries said: “We’re having a discussion about how the BBC can become more representative of the people who pay the licence fee, and how it can be more accessible to people from all backgrounds, not just people whose mum and dad worked there.”
The flexible working “debate” began on Monday – when a senior Conservatuve MP cracked wise about getting civil servants to go back to the office.
Jake Berry, chair of the North Research Group, told a fringe event: “We have to end the civil service ‘woke-ing’ from home – sorry I mean working from home, but let’s be honest, it often is woke-ing.”
For those who don’t know, the phrase “woke” has been so misapplied it’s close to meaningless, but let’s assume it’s being deployed here as a jab at any attitude that is vaguely left-wing or liberal.
Elsewhere on “what did they just say?” watch, Johnson urged young people to get back to the office. Why? In order to stop their colleagues gossiping about them.
Though Johnson admitted he had not yet managed to get all his staff back into the office full-time, that didn’t stop him signalling that others should do better.
He told LBC: “I think that for young people in particular, it is really essential to be in a… if you’re going to learn on the job, you can’t just do it on Zoom.
“You’ve got to be able to come in and sit at the… you’ve got to know what everyone else is talking about.
“Otherwise, you’re going to be gossiped about and you’re going to lose out.”