Imagine for a moment that in early 2009, crossing Westminster Bridge, you had been hit by Gordon Brown’s motorcade and put into a coma. Waking 15 years later in St Thomas’ Hospital, you wandered out and, seeing a crowd of people in tweed jackets and mustard trousers, followed them into a hall for what turned out to be the launch of the Popular Conservatives movement.
Who, you might have thought, are these dynamic politicians? There was a comedy turn from a chap called Rees-Mogg — looks like double-breasted suits have made a comeback — and a punchy speech from someone called Liz Truss. There is an MP with a big future ahead of her, you might have told yourself.
And they certainly had a compelling story to tell. Why, it seems that, while you were unconscious, some bunch of complete chancers had been running Britain into the ground! As speaker after speaker explained, you’d woken up in a country in which nothing worked, where taxes were too high, the government intervened in every aspect of people’s lives, and where no one could afford to pay their bills. Thank goodness, you would have thought to yourself, there was a general election around the corner, so that this rotten government could be chucked out and replaced by somebody halfway competent. You wouldn’t be surprised if that Truss got a big job.
For those of us who arrived at the Popular Conservatives launch with the doubtful advantage of having been awake for much of the past decade, things were a little more confusing. Popular Conservatism is certainly exciting new direction for a party which has mastered the alternative. But some vital piece of the narrative was missing.
Take, for instance, director Mark Littlewood’s list of institutions captured by “leftist groupthink”. The ECHR is a standard Tory hate target. But the Treasury? The Office for Budget Responsibility? Wasn’t the latter set up by a Conservative government, designed by George Osborne to create problems for future Labour governments? Its leftism seems to be manifested in a commitment to conventional arithmetic. Perhaps that’s why Littlewood hates schools, too.
Whatever Littlewood’s point was, everything he saw proved it. The Post Office scandal, he explained, would never have happened if the private sector had been involved. Executives at Fujitsu fearful for their bonuses will be relieved to hear they’ve been cleared.
All these groups believe that the country is in a mess that will only be fixed when it has a Conservative government
The PopCons, as they call themselves, aren’t to be confused with the NatCons (National Conservatives) or the NewCons (New Conservatives). Even though a lot of the same people seem to be in all of them, and these groups all seem to believe much the same things, they are bitterly divided by differences so tiny that you need an electron microscope to identify them.
All these groups believe that the country is in a mess that will only be fixed when it has a Conservative government. You might think the Conservatives have been in power since 2010, but in fact, as Littlewood explained, the country has really been controlled all this time by Tony Blair. As best as it was possible to work it out, Blair has wielded his power through his creation of a network of bodies who cannot be challenged, like the Charity Commission.
Somehow, this wasn’t even the oddest intervention of the day. That came from Mhairi Fraser, the Tory candidate in Epsom and Ewell, who chose to use her ten minutes to advocate for smoking. It’s heartening that, banned from advertising in sport, tobacco companies have discovered they can still sponsor political groups. If the PopCons get their way, we can look forward to more of this in parliament. “This debate was brought to you by Silk Cut, the smooth taste you can enjoy between points of order. Silk Cut: top Speakers recommend it!”
It wasn’t just the sweet, sweet smell of cigarette smoke that Fraser was in favour of, though. She also railed against lockdown. When Lee Anderson stood up to complain that we no longer burn coal like a proper country, it became clear that another linking thread in Popular Conservatism is a hatred of being able to breathe. They’re going to have to workshop this a bit before they take it to the electorate.
We were still waiting for the main event. The morning’s big speaker — sponsored, one imagines, by Marlboro Reds, the taste of freedom — was Liz Truss.
This was a different Truss from the brittle figure we saw during the weeks when she was running Britain. She was confident, comfortable in her own skin. If the worst has already happened to you — and politically it really did happen to her — that must help.
Truss added some new enemies to the list. As well as Maths and Blair and Big Oxygen, we got Greta Thunberg and London dinner parties (“I never get invited”). “It’s difficult being a Conservative at the moment,” Truss complained. Well, up to a point. Other parties, parties that haven’t won the last four elections, might point out that they, too, face challenges.
Although perhaps the right does have a few things on its side, apart from the millionaire donors and the parliamentary majority. “Britain is full of secret Conservatives,” Truss confided. “People who agree with us but don’t want to admit it.” Sadly shortage of time meant she couldn’t get into the question of why anyone might feel embarrassed to say they agree with her.
This, then, is Popular Conservatism: complaining about how hard things are for the people running the country, and how they’re being held back by the people who definitely aren’t. And by dinner parties. And maths. And people who enjoy breathing.
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