There was a moment during last week’s Conservative fundraiser that summed up the moral dead-end the party has reached. Boris Johnson initiated a jokey interchange with Nadine Dorries, which had the culture secretary shouting out “sixty-nine” to the prime minister’s questions.
Some thought it funny. Others cringed. A point not lost on political journalists was that, less than a decade ago, both Johnson and Dorries were figures of ridicule in mainstream politics: he the modern-day Pulcinella in a comedy of his own making, she famous for going on I’m A Celebrity without telling her constituents or her party.
With Johnson fantasising about ruling into the 2030s, and Dorries slated for promotion in the coming reshuffle, it’s worth reminding ourselves how such totally unsuitable people grabbed so much power, and why they’re so hard for the Tories to get rid of, even as they quip their way towards electoral disaster.
In 2016, not long after David Cameron’s resignation, a senior businessman told me: “Don’t worry, George Osborne’s father-in-law will be in there fixing the succession right now”. The assumption was that Lord Howell, among various other Tory grandees, would see to it that the “nutters” were kept away from power, and that the party would remain, essentially, an executive committee for big oil and high finance.
The Tory backbenches would always remain home to a handful of “colourful characters” – just as the public schools of England are to certain teachers whose behaviour would look bizarre outside the gates. But Conservatism had fine-tuned itself to be the austerity-addicted technocracy of a deregulated market. That was the theory.
But Brexit has effectively broken Conservatism. The self-professed tradition of pragmatism, competence and intellectual rigour – in whose name generations have donned evening dress to debate inanities at the Oxford Union – was replaced with a nationalist utopia.
Johnson’s remark to journalists at the G7 sums it up: “We’ve embarked on a massive project to change the government, the constitution of the country and the way we run our legal system, the way we manage borders, our economy, all sorts of things we’re doing differently.”
Brexit, in other words, was only the prologue. We’ll “manage our borders” by dragging handcuffed refugees along the floors of airliners bound for Rwanda; we’ll “run our legal system” without reference to the universality of human rights; we’ll “change the constitution” so that gross breaches of electoral law go unpunished.
As for “changing the government” – it is already changed, from a semi-competent committee of technocrats to an open regime of place-seeking, honours-selling and personal enrichment. If you can rig elections, fix the BBC’s board, stuff the House of Lords with mates and donors, abolish the ministerial code at whim, there’s no need to worry about how cringeworthy it looks.
Nor do you need to worry about having a home secretary censured for bullying cleaners, a foreign secretary on holiday while Afghanistan implodes, or a prime minister busted for partying through the lockdown.
Let’s be honest about who bears responsibility for all this: Tory voters, Tory donors in the business class and Tory party members.
They love the Rwanda policy. Many – like Blackpool MP Scott Benton – would happily see the return of the death penalty and the banning of abortion. True, Labour’s victory in Wakefield saw 13,000 former Tory voters boycott the poll in disgust at Johnson’s lies and moral turpitude, but most of them did not switch to Labour, whose voting numbers fell. And 8,000 of Wakefield’s good citizens were committed enough to go and vote for a party that had knowingly harboured a child-molesting former MP.
In every ex-industrial constituency now there is a hard core of English nationalist voters who were first mobilised against Scottish nationalism in 2014-15, then Brexit, then around the Brexit party and are now hardcore supporters of the Johnson agenda. Nothing deters them. They love the inane phrases Johnson uses – not because they believe in “levelling up” or “Global Britain” – but because they know it’s all part of the game: whistling tunes of glory while the country rots.
At the other end of the social spectrum, in the C-suites of banks and businesses and the offices of SMEs, tolerance for misrule is driven by pure venality. Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have doled out billions in soft loans and tax breaks – discarding the austerity doctrine for the magic money tree.
What can remove Johnson and his camarilla from Downing Street? Don’t bank on the answer being an election.
In 2019 Tory-aligned non-party campaigns – with no members and no obvious ways of raising money – created something close to a “state of exception”, bombarding voters with more than £2m worth of dodgy Facebook advertising. On top of the Brexit vote, that is two major electoral events in the space of four years where foreign influence, dark money and organised rule-breaking had a significant influence on the outcome.
Nothing Labour does – ditching pledges, coining catchy slogans or keeping junior ministers off picket lines – will be effective against a press that regards lying as legitimate and a Tory elite that regards electoral law as irrelevant.
What ends this disgraceful period in British politics will be a progressive alliance – where people who want the rule of law restored and the electoral system made sound again – that decides to win together rather than being destroyed again separately.
Even an informal electoral pact could wipe the Tories out for a generation. A short parliament, delivering PR and re-entry into the single market without any recourse to referendums, could be followed by the first general election in which everybody’s vote counts.
The alternative, even if Johnson is ejected over the summer, is more rule by diktat, more racism, more cronyism – and perpetual contempt for the constitution.