Artillery Row

With their pants down

The Conservatives are in a nightmare they cannot wake up from

There’s a common nightmare about finding yourself naked in public, desperately trying to grab a stitch of clothing. It’s about anxiety, a fear of being found out. How then, does someone cope after they have been exposed, in  the most public way possible, as not up to the job? On Monday, a succession of Conservative prime ministers offered a variety of models, from the urbane to the borderline insane.

First up was David Cameron, doing his first full round of broadcast interviews since he departed for a better place (the House of Lords). To hear him on the radio over breakfast was to feel a surge of nostalgia for happier, easier times, when British political scandals largely revolved around Cornish pasties and bacon rolls. 

Had you woken up worried that the world was on the brink of Armageddon? Here was Lord Dave to reassure you. Iran’s attack on Israel? “It’s been a failure.” Why were we handling Iran differently from Russia? “They are both dangerous countries.” The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy – nothing could discomfort him. 

Cameron was not, objectively, a successful prime minister. No one who resigns suddenly after the total collapse of their foreign and economic policy can be considered to have been a successful prime minister. But to listen to him chuckling along with interviewers, deftly sidestepping questions he didn’t want to answer, being at times surprisingly frank about the nature of the diplomatic minefield in which we find ourselves, was to be reminded that he had always seemed so very good at being prime minister, right up until the moment we realised he’d been a disaster at it.

He popped up on Sky, firing out numbers with the gay abandon of a Tehran-backed missile battery: “301 weapons, 110 ballistic missiles, 40 cruise missiles.” These numbers would wobble as the morning went on: BBC Breakfast got 43 cruise missiles, the Today programme only 36. Whatever, it was a lot. 

And there was the quiet modesty referring to the Royal Air Force’s engagements over the weekend. “We shouldn’t overstate our role,” he said, like a Lancaster pilot who’s just landed with a single working engine and a bullet lodged in his shoulder reporting that it had been a bit tricky over Berlin last night. 

A stage conjuror, the illusionist Jean Robert-Houdin once wrote, “is an actor playing the part of a magician”. Cameron is an actor playing the role of a veteran former prime minister, one who retired in triumph and is back to lend a hand. Perhaps he even believes it. 

No one knows what Liz Truss believes. Given her apparent frustration at the late Queen’s selfishness in dying, though, it seems a fair bet that she feels the chief victim of the troubles in the Middle East is her book publicity campaign. Some people just can’t catch a break.

There isn’t, what with the global crisis, the space we would want to fully cover Truss’s appearances on Monday. The first of them was given to something called Spectator TV. Nothing could be more fitting to her time in office than an interview with an imaginary TV station. But the hour-long format made for an entertaining watch, the magazine’s editor Fraser Nelson eschewing confrontation and instead giving Truss enough rope to hang herself.

How, he asked, did she reconcile her demands that the West give more support to Ukraine with her view that Donald Trump should be the next US president? We shouldn’t listen to Trump’s rhetoric, she explained. “Judge him on his actions.” Not all his actions, presumably. Though Truss may still be annoyed that no armed mob stormed parliament demanding she be restored to office. 

She had been brought down by powerful enemies. “I can list examples,” she said. “The Post Office, the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility, Natural England.” It wasn’t so much an interview with a former PM as a letter written in green ink. 

What you needed to understand about these enemies, she told Nelson, is that “they don’t believe in the Laffer Curve!” She said it with the bewildered horror you’d expect from an evangelical preacher who had encountered a statement from the House of Bishops. The Spectator editor spoke gently. “Nobody talks about…” he corrected himself. “Nobody sane talks about the Deep State in Britain.”

One of Truss’s problems is that she’s trying to sell her book to two different audiences. American Conservatives have no idea who she is, and so may be more inclined to take her seriously. But pandering to the US market means arguing that Donald Trump is a force for “moral clarity”, a position that looks, from this side of the Atlantic, frankly deluded. 

Finally, we heard from the current prime minister. Monday was, for him, relatively straightforward, as statements on foreign affairs generally are. There was general agreement that Iran was bad and it would be better if Israel didn’t shoot back, or at least not very hard. 

Perhaps the most interesting straw in the wind was when Mhairi Black, deputy leader of the SNP, said it was all very well condemning Iran for bombing Israel, but it was time to condemn Israel for bombing Gaza. Six months ago, that would have prompted howls of outrage from the Tories. On Monday she was heard in silence. Only when the prime minister denied any “equivalence” was there a noise from the government benches. MPs are becoming increasingly worried about Israel’s actions in Gaza.

But it was one of his easier sessions. Rishi Sunak must wish for the relative comfort of simply finding himself naked in public. Instead he has to wake up and lead the Conservative Party every day.

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