The blame game

Some terrible villain has made the Conservative Party unpopular. But who could it be?


“It’s not a time for blame,” Annunciata “Nancy” Rees-Mogg said, in what would prove to be, amid tough competition, the most obviously wrong statement of Tuesday’s Popular Conservatism conference. It would be a morning of blame. Blaming MPs, blaming voters, blaming the last government. The only people not to blame, we gradually realised, were those present, and not even all of them. Nobody actually said it, but I’m pretty confident that journalists were also to blame.

“This isn’t a beauty parade,” he went on

Hold on a moment, though. “Popular Conservatism”? Didn’t last week’s elections suggest this is something of a contradiction in terms? Certainly the room was far from full. When the group last met, back in February, they were an insurgent group within the governing party. There was a sense of energy about the group. Deluded energy, guided by a belief that Tony Blair was still secretly running the country, but energy nonetheless. On Tuesday morning, the mood was pensioners getting out of the rain.

Trying to look on the bright side, the director Mark Littlewood said how nice it was that they could meet without protestors outside. But what is there to protest? You might as well picket the Flat Earth Society.

Why were we there? Well, the sketchwriters were there for a laugh. Why was anyone else there? Littlewood explained it definitely wasn’t to discuss who should be the next Tory leader. “This isn’t a beauty parade,” he went on, which was an accurate, if slightly harsh, description of a line-up that included David Starkey, David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Instead, the purpose of the meeting was to decide whose fault it was that the Conservatives had lost the election. Obviously, Littlewood explained, the main blame lay with the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee. Attendees nodded along. This was clearly the case. These unelected busybodies had believed too much in balancing books, and not enough in Brexit.

Next up was Starkey. He had words of comfort for his audience. “Keir Starmer is not very clever!” he declared, of a man who was at that moment chairing a Cabinet meeting, rather than addressing a couple of hundred slightly damp people who had nothing better to do on a Tuesday morning.

“Socialism always fails!” Starkey went on with the confidence of a man who knows that any day now his wife will see sense and come crawling back. But wasn’t it Conservatism that was rejected comprehensively at the ballot box? Oh what fools we were! It wasn’t Conservatives who were in charge for the last 14 years! Why, Starkey complained, David Cameron had boasted “his greatest achievement was gay marriage”. Theresa May had legislated for Net Zero. These guys were basically Blairites.

Next up was Daniel Hannan, a man so committed to democracy that he accepted a seat in the House of Lords. He had another culprit for the electoral disaster: the civil service: “The entire machine is there to thwart the minister’s will.” He felt the main reason for the defeat was that people were angry about lockdown. That and the fact that Doctor Who had gone woke. It turns out that the election is a picture in which you can find what you want.

Except personal responsibility. David Frost, a key figure in the last government, a man we’re often assured is one of his party’s great thinkers, rose to denounce everything that had happened over the last four years. Taxes were too high, immigration was too high, real Brexit had never been tried.

There were a series of speeches in which hatchets were buried

Suella Braverman popped up, beaming in from Washington! Would it surprise you to learn that the Tories had lost the election because they hadn’t left the European Convention on Human Rights?

And here was Jacob Rees-Mogg, to tell us that he had never liked Doctor Who, not even, presumably, in the Tom Baker days. Forget NHS waiting lists or small boats. The real faultline in the election was apparently children’s TV.

Had things gone wrong in the last government? Of course they had. Everyone agreed the Conservatives hadn’t built enough houses. Whom do we blame for that? Doctor Who again? Then there was what we might politely call the chaos in Number 10. This turned out to be the fault of Tory MPs. Several times we were reminded that Conservative Party members had chosen Boris Johnson, who had won elections and done no wrong, and that MPs had chosen Rishi Sunak, who had been a disaster. Had there been another prime minister? One who had been chosen by members? If so, no one could remember her name.

But enough of the Popular Conservatives. It was time to head over the road, to where the new parliament was meeting. And what a sight it was. The government benches were overflowing, a sea of red dresses and ties, the aisles full, newly-elected Labour MPs forced to stand, to sit in the galleries above. The cheer they gave the leader when he arrived was deafening.

The Tories, on the other hand, couldn’t even fill the first set of opposition benches. On the second, the Lib Dems had reclaimed the front two rows from the SNP, with Parliament’s newest star, a four-year-old golden retriever guide dog named Jennie, who belongs to Steve Darling, the new MP for Torbay. She had flung herself onto the floor like a rug, either exhausted by all the excitement or thoroughly bored. We have high hopes for her.

There were a series of speeches in which hatchets were buried. Keir Starmer welcomed the return of Diane Abbott as mother of the house, barely a month after trying to stop her from standing. Stephen Flynn of the SNP was gracious about Lindsay Hoyle, with whom, as he put it, “we didn’t always see eye-to-eye”. And Nigel Farage made a short and ungracious speech attacking John Bercow for trying to block Brexit. As far as the leader of Reform is concerned, it’s always a time for blame.

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