On 11 May 2020, as Britain reeled from the first wave of the pandemic, Boris Johnson urged the public to use ‘good, solid British common sense’ to navigate the risks posed by Covid-19. One year and 120,000 deaths later, the prime minister’s advice to the nation was the same. ‘It’s about basic common sense,’ he said on 11 May 2021. Now, as Britain lifts all Covid restrictions while recording nearly as many cases as the entire European Union, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive at the weekend, has told the Commons it is time to ‘start a new chapter based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense’.
Is a reasonable discussion about the Equality and Human Rights Commission and racism in political parties even possible? Honestly, it seems doubtful. The EHRC has been weaponised in the endless battle of ‘your racism is worse than ours’ between the Conservative government, the Labour opposition and their respective supporters. That the commission has investigated Labour for antisemitism but will not investigate the Conservatives for anti-Muslim hate has been used to undermine the antisemitism probe, painting it as part of a smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. This is not merely bleak in its own terms. It also makes it harder to raise the question of Conservative Islamophobia and what can be done to tackle it.
The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore as prime minister, is formally underway. Ten candidates passed the 1922 Committee’s nomination threshold, and now enter a series of ballots of Conservative MPs to whittle them down to two, who will face a ballot of around 100,000 party members with an average age somewhere around 65 (according to the Bow Group’s estimate). The rest of us can do nothing but watch with impotent horror.
On Monday, 21 May, Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson launched a new Conservative think-tank, Onward. Its aim, in the words of its director, Will Tanner, a former aide to Theresa May, is to ‘reach out to millennials in their twenties and early thirties – my generation – who overwhelmingly voted Labour in 2017’. The inspiration behind the name is Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign, En Marche! The irony of invoking Macron to boost popular support – for all the media buzz, he won on the lowest election turnout in the history of the French republic – seems to have been lost on its organisers. With Onward, Nick Timothy writes, ‘the future of the Conservative Party is about to be revealed.’
In the conference hall the blue-heads have just been shown a video of Labour’s election ‘Edstone’, as a reminder of disaster averted. For a moment everything goes black, like a seance. The massed jam-makers and xenophobes sit in anticipatory rictus, a suckling pig waiting to gulp down the sweet nectar of platitude. But when the lights go up, it’s only the prime minister, on stage in Manchester to give his annual Tory pep talk.
At an earlier stage of this general election, I thought about proposing one of those drinking games in which people have a shot or swig every time a Conservative on the campaign trail used the word ‘plan’. I’m glad I didn’t go ahead with that. Anyone who’d taken up the suggestion would now be in a clinic. It was already bad, but the Tory manifesto takes it to another level entirely. Guess how many times the word ‘plan’ occurs’. For purposes of reference, the Labour manifesto uses it 27 times. Answer: 121. It’s almost as if they were trying to stress the idea that they have a plan.
On 14 January 2014 I saw Jack Straw speak at the Westminster Russia Forum at the Baltic Restaurant on Blackfriars. The Forum, formerly known as Conservative Friends of Russia, was launched in August 2012. Leaked e-mails from Russian officials soon appeared, saying they had been urged to use the organisation to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster. CFoR tweeted photographs of the anti-Kremlin head of the Parliamentary Committee on Russia, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. The Russian diplomat liaising with the group was Sergey Nalobin, first secretary in the embassy's political section (his father was a senior figure in the KGB and FSB). They were accused by the Guardian, World Affairs and Private Eye of being a lobby group for the Kremlin.
Under ten months till the UK general election, and the parties are busy pushing round the hat. Last week Labour threw a fundraiser at the Camden Roundhouse, at £15,000 for a seat at the top table. But that's barely a groat in the cap beside the Tories' prowess at stuffing the topper.
The phrase ‘property owning democracy’, on which the popular conservatism of the 20th century rested, and with it a vision of the good society, was coined by the Scottish Unionist Noel Skelton in a quartet of articles for the Spectator entitled ‘Constructive Conservatism’, written in the spring of 1923. The previous November’s general election had seen more candidates from the Labour party elected to House of Commons than Asquith’s Liberals and Lloyd George’s National Liberals combined. For Skelton, the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, which massively extended the vote, and that electoral turnover – which was to prove terminal for the Liberals – meant that politics, and the Tories, could not proceed as before. It was only a matter of time before the forces of democratic socialism might challenge for a majority in the House of Commons. To stave off the threat, Skelton hoped that the Tories might come to accommodate progressive attitudes on such issues as housing and pensions, and in so doing steal much of Labour’s thunder. 'Reform so that you may preserve,' as Macaulay had put it. No surprise then that Anthony Eden repeated Skelton’s words at the 1946 Conservative Party conference, in the shadow of the unexpected defeat of Churchill’s government the previous year. What had been an intellectual exercise two decades previously was now imperative in ensuring the return to power of the Conservative party. Addressing a meeting of Saga customers last week – whose average age will have been about the same as the average member of the Conservative party (68) - David Cameron spoke of how he would like to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.
Last week, Boris Johnson gave the third annual Margaret Thatcher lecture, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies. Most of the spluttering that followed has focused on what the Mayor of London is supposed to have said about the impossibility of equality, his remarks about IQ, and his comparions between people and cornflakes.
A friend who works in my local Blackwell’s told me that Conservative Party members get a discount at the bookshop. This seemed so unlikely that I phoned the Blackwell’s helpline pretending to be a paid-up Tory, and sure enough was told that I would get 20 per cent off. Joining the Conservative Party costs £25 a year: if you spend £125 a year on books at Blackwells you essentially get your party membership for free (a less catchy offer perhaps than ‘3 for 2’). It’s unclear, though, how the Tories’ encouraging people to shop at Blackwell’s fits in with their alleged support for small shops, unless they mean the smaller branches of Blackwell’s.