Tory trolling

Are the Nat Cons getting mogged by Gove?


“I’m grateful that so many people have turned up,” Michael Gove told the National Conservatism Conference. “It’s evidence of the intellectual energy that we have on the centre-right in this country.”

One of the striking things about the National Conservatives is how much they hate the Conservative government

What was he talking about? The vast hall of the Emmanuel Centre was at perhaps a little more than half capacity for him. Sitting room only, as they say. As for “centre-right”, had he been paying attention to anything anyone had been saying? On Tuesday morning the loudest applause had been for an attack on David Cameron. Monday had seen Conservative MPs denouncing the current government over its childcare plans. You don’t have to believe the conference was full of fascist entryists to note that these criticisms aren’t coming from people who see themselves as centrists.

It was slightly surprising that Gove was there at all. One of the striking things about the National Conservatives is how much they hate the Conservative government. Perhaps, reader, you who voted Remain and dream of a Labour government and think that you hate the Tories. I can assure you that your feelings are mere distaste compared to the pure flame of loathing that the Nat Cons direct at everyone currently in power. You, after all, expect life to be terrible under a Conservative government. For actual Conservatives, the discovery that they are in charge and everything is awful is much more traumatic.

And yet here was Gove, pouring warm words over the audience like olive oil over a salad. Gradually, it became clear what was happening. Some people might have confronted the conference, told those present that they were wrong. Not Gove. He had come instead to drown them in pure, epic sarcasm. He had come not to bury National Conservativsm, but to troll it.

Was it a problem that the Home Secretary had spent yesterday afternoon attacking the Home Office from the spot where he now spoke? Not at all, he oozed. “That is a sign of a party and a broader movement that is healthy!” Indeed, it could only be healthier if they got the Health Secretary along to say that all the hospitals were rubbish.

This was cold-pressed, extra-virgin irony, specially imported in tiny batches from some of the world’s finest sarcasm groves

Over lunch, we had been pondering the intellectual journey on which a Conservative MP trying to be loyal to their various leaders must have taken over the past two decades. First they were big society modernisers who wanted to go green and stop banging on about Europe. Then they were warning of the dangers of Brexit. Then they were explaining the joys of a customs union. Then they were calling for no-deal while explaining the constitutional importance of lying to the Queen and shutting down parliament. They defended lockdown and then attacked lockdown and then defended lockdown and then explained why it was fine for the prime minister to break lockdown. For a fortnight last autumn they were low-tax ultra libertarians, and now they believe in raising taxes to fund state subsidies. Or, to use Gove’s words, “what we’ve seen at different points is the Conservative Party, as it always has, adapting to changed circumstances.” Put it like that, it almost sounds like a strategy.

There was nothing that Gove couldn’t coat with a sheen of irony.  “The whole point about being a Conservative is that you respect institutions,” he said. “You respect parliament, you respect the rule of law.” As a comment on the last four years, this was cold-pressed, extra-virgin irony, specially imported in tiny batches from some of the world’s finest sarcasm groves.

“If you’re on the progressive left, you deliberately seek to polarise the world into the woke and the unwoke,” Gove observed, slyly describing a very large proportion of the speeches the conference had heard. “Conservatives don’t do that.”

“There’s something distinctly British about gentleness and civility of discourse,” Gove, a man so famously polite that he had to hire Dominic Cummings to insult people on his behalf, explained to a room full of people who had just spent two days listening to speeches describing everyone who disagreed with them as an enemy of civilisation.

Of course they should stand up for their values, Gove told them, “but we should do so with the self confidence that means that we don’t need to be strident.” Ooof. Take that, Suella.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe every word was sincere. But then, towards the end, he addressed the coming Torypocalypse. “I think the Conservatives will win the next election,” he declared, and he said it with such feeling that had you known nothing else, you would have believed he meant it. Gove, however, is many things, but he’s no fool. I prefer to think he was taking the piss.

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