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Artillery Row

The needy party

Wanting to be liked is a recipe for hatred

“There’s much to do in this party of ours,” said Theresa May, to the assembled mass of blue rinses and red trousers at the 2002 Conservative Party Conference. “You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.” And so a switch was flicked in the Tories’ psychology. We need to be liked, its senior figures began to think. Slowly but surely the neurosis spread — through the Parliamentary Party into the local associations, and on, through the veins and capillaries, finally arriving in the activist base, huddled now on social media, tweeting about their imaginary left-wing friendships, adding rainbow flags and pronouns to their online biographies, drinking too much and having mental breakdowns. 

The Nasty Party became the Needy Party — and, ironically, it’s as unpopular today as it was when Tony Blair took the cane off the mantelpiece and birched it like a 19th century schoolboy caught scrumping in the Headmaster’s garden.

Don’t get me wrong: the Tory Party in the noughties obviously needed to change. It was, in many ways, a freak show — a whacky cocktail of reactionaries and eccentrics; retired Colonels and pinstriped libertarians; Mary Whitehouse impersonators, and God-fearing family men who exclusively hired freshly scrubbed Ephebian staff. Many of the social views on offer would be quite unacceptable now. Yet there was a logic, indeed a wisdom, to some of its antics. “Our job should be to pass necessary legislation, practical legislation, legislation that will add value to the statute book and indeed to the body politic,” explained Eric Forth, the right wing, Elvis Presley-loving, Page 3-admiring MP for Bromley and Chislehurst: “Not endlessly to load the statute book with more and more good thoughts and clever ideas.” Spool ahead twenty years and we find a Parliament that pumps out virtue-signalling, short termist legislation like Thames Water pumps out sewage — and this fetish for big spending, hectoring politicking has inarguably got worse under the current Conservative Party’s watch.

As we sit here now — facing rocketing energy costs, eye-watering debt, inflation, recession, out-of-control crime, and continued social and cultural degradation — there remains less than a cigarette paper between the main parties on not only the economy, but all major issues. The Tories have bent over backwards to placate the Good People™, with precisely the results one might expect. Take fuel: the UK floats on lakes of easily exploitable shale, and we are surrounded by a sea full of oil and gas. Had Tory politicians made the hard-nosed decisions expected of them, we could be the smuggest country in Europe this winter, but instead the government subcontracted its energy policy to silly students, silly activists, silly old Gary Lineker and, silliest of all, the stupendously silly Carrie Johnson — and now must scramble desperately to save millions of households, many of them temperamentally Conservative, from totally avoidable fuel poverty.

There is no doubt the party is in the last chance saloon. Some senior figures privately think it’s over, and are pondering what happens after a 2024 drubbing. Others think — hope? — the situation can improve.

But any chance of restitution will require a pivot away from the attitude which has landed the Tories in this mess. This is the party that has expanded the state beyond anything we’ve seen since the Second World War. The average public sector wage is now higher than the average in the private sector. Tax and spend has soared. Culturally, we have seen nothing less than complete capitulation, as extremist ideologies grip our institutions, and loud, unrepresentative groups impose themselves on the rest of us without so much as a whimper of protest from the party of government. I think we’ve established that Boris Johnson likes to be liked. But wanting to be liked by people who will always hate you, whilst neglecting those that want you to do well, is a fool’s behaviour. And look where it’s got him. About to be replaced by Elizabeth Truss.

On a certain level, I get it. It’s not very pleasant being on the receiving end of the directionless anger that has gripped so many in our cultural and institutional elites. Conservatives are “murderers, bastards, abusers and liars” thundered Doctor Who’s Russell T. Davies recently. I mean, really? James Cleverly — a murderer and bastard? Steve Baker — an abuser? There are certainly some bad apples, but my overall impression of Conservative MPs (indeed, most MPs) is that they are almost pathetically desperate to please and placate. Of course, there are plenty of human flaws, and a fair few idiots; but any analysis that settles on the Tory Party as a production line of monsters and psychopaths is almost comically wide of the mark. 

Yet it is the analysis that has taken root — and is now glibly thrown around, often by people attached to organisations with histories of immoral, illegal and abusive activity far in excess of the British Conservative Party. Emily Maitlis, the former Newsnight presenter who is finally — finally! Oh, thank the Lord, finally! — able to let us know what she thinks, took things even further. We are, she claimed in her barmy MacTaggart lecture, on the verge of dictatorship. The BBC has been reduced to little more than a mouthpiece for Dominic Cummings and his slavering Dementors. The law is being overwritten; elections undermined; jackboots polished up. There is even, apparently, a Conservative “agent” operating within the hallowed walls of Broadcasting House. (I presume, by this, she means she encountered a solitary Tory voice amongst the ocean of people who think exactly the same as her.) 

There are virtually no “out” Conservatives across our public square

Give. Me. A. Break. There are virtually no “out” Conservatives at the BBC, just as there are virtually no “out” Conservatives across our public square. Why would there be? After 12 years in power, the Tory Party has done nothing whatever to insert alternative viewpoints into any of our institutions; they rarely appoint their own supporters to public positions; and they never lift a finger to assist or defend the few Conservatives who do break cover. Indeed, there are now large chunks of British society where a combination of Tory cowardice and an understandable, if impossible, desire for establishment affirmation has made holding centre-right views as socially acceptable as announcing you have monkeypox in a sauna.

Much of it is down to Brexit. The 2016 referendum fractured the country along certain lines: those with wealth and status tended, broadly, to support Remain, whilst those with less money, and less access to Britain’s institutional apparatus, flopped for Leave. Those elite Remainers have never forgiven those Leave voters, never really troubled to understand what motivated them — and are very resistant to allowing the insular prejudice (as they see it) of the great unwashed into their shiny, glass-fronted urban citadels. It is, I guess, so much easier to call people “fascists” than to understand and engage, and the truth is it is semi-suicidal for a Conservative Brexiteer who wants to operate in such fields to try and explain their position. The rage of the response — for subscribing to an economic model, capitalism, that has delivered unparalleled wealth and progress (including for its harshest critics), coupled with wanting to leave an unwieldy supranational bureaucracy — makes keeping schtum the better option. I know. Believe me… I know.

But, ultimately, politics is a rough ol’ game, and those that wish to be politicians — mad though they are — require the constitution to shrug all the unpleasantness off. MPs like Eric Forth had it. I am far from convinced the new breed of Conservative politician has that resilience. Maybe Liz Truss does. If not, the Needy Party will go the same way as the Nasty Party. Sir Keir’s polishing his cane — and there are lots of people, on all sides of politics, who think this government deserves a thrashing.

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