Election 2019- The Conservative and Unionist Party- The Devil

The Tory party has now been in governmental office for nine years, the first five of which it spent in coalition with the Liberal Democrats before winning an unexpected majority in 2015. Over that time period we have dubiously enjoyed three Prime Ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Over that time, the party has changed, moving from a modernising liberal party that took an officially neutral position on Brexit (even while most of its parliamentary members advocated for remain), to a more insular, more right-wing party that leans into a fairly hard Brexit and has purged the moderate wing in pursuit of this goal. Quite the change. The change has been driven by a variety of factors, firstly the initial pursuit of the UKIP vote, which lead to the Brexit referendum itself; secondly the weak leadership of Theresa May who became hostage to the minority right-wing of the party and embraced the hard brexit concept to the exclusion of all else; and thirdly the rise of Boris Johnson, a man who would do anything to become Prime Minister and has empowered the hard right in order to try and reclaim those voters who have fled to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. Three simple things, which combined with the general deterioration in the public discourse have torpedoed all of Cameron’s efforts to refresh and renew the Conservative party, and sent them right back to being xenophobic, socially conservative and out of touch with people’s needs.

At this election, the Tory pitch is very simple. Get Brexit Done. We know this because they endlessly repeat it whenever they are in public, stumbling round muttering it under their breath. Their manifesto also makes it clear. In fact it does so in two ways, firstly by having it in enormous letters on the front page and secondly by having a more or less complete dearth of other policies. Sixty-four pages long, it has less substantive content than the brochure for a Women’s Institute show. The focus on jam that it shares with the aforementioned brochure (in the Tory case the Parliamentary jam on Brexit, and in the WI case a nice competition between Mrs Williams and Mrs Richards), leaves very little room to actually outline any real policy changes that they aspire to over the next term of Parliament. For this reason, proper analysis of the Tory manifesto is a little more tricky than most of the others, merely because there is less to analyse. But there are certain key pledges we can examine to determine whether they are speaking sense or not.

At some point in the last few months, Brexit has ceased to be a good idea, even for the Tory party faithful. It’s really the only explanation for the consistent Tory assertion that we must hastily get Brexit done to move on to people’s other priorities. That Brexit itself is no longer considered a priority surely represents a major change. Alternatively, the cynic might say that the Tories are desperately trying to make this election about everything other than Brexit, because they know they have no good answers to that one. Boris’ pitch to ‘get brexit done’ implies an ease that is simply not present. One of the major reasons this election was called was because Johnson maintained that Parliament was blocking Brexit. Quite a claim given that a couple of days before he was proudly touting that his deal was the first to get through Parliament, itself a misleading claim in that it had passed first reading, but none of the other nine stages of a bill passing Parliament. There are fundamentally two issues at play here with regard to ‘getting Brexit done. The first is about his assertion that Parliament is blocking Brexit. To be entirely fair to him, we should perhaps defer to his expertise on this one as he has personally voted to block Brexit two times under Theresa May’s premiership. As Johnson had already pointed out, before it became more politically expeditious to claim otherwise, Parliament had indeed voted for his deal at first reading. Although it would not necessarily do so at subsequent readings oor in committee stage (I am sure that it would have had trouble getting through the later stages), this does put paid to the lie that they were blocking it. Parliament’s actions in ‘blocking Brexit’ have been a consistent bugbear for both of the post-Brexit Tory administrations. The Tory approach seems to be, and this has become more prominent as the process has dragged on and the risk of losing Brexit entirely has increased, that the referendum vote must be respected no matter what that might entail.

The other issue is a more fundamental one of practicality, and of misleading the public as to what happens next. See, when Johnson says ‘Get Brexit Done’, there is a pretty clear implication that once his deal is passed, that’s it, Brexit is over and done with. He has compounded this by stating that he will not under any circumstances extend the transition period past December 2020, meaning that if we do not secure a trade agreement with the EU by then, we essentially are leaving on a no-deal basis and will be forced to trade on WTO terms. The question then becomes is it possible to do a free-trade deal with the EU in 11 months? Johnson’s argument is that it will be easy, because we are already aligned with their rules on key issues. Trade experts and EU officials disagree with this, saying that alignment is likely to make things more difficult, firstly because the EU will not want to give a trade deal without strict conditions to someone who would essentially be able to undercut them on prices, and secondly we will be trading on an entirely different basis with them. The common rules we will have within the EU are there because the system underpins them. When we leave, we will no longer have that basis. The presumption will be that the UK wants to diverge on key issues, otherwise why would it have left? Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief brexit negotiator has said that to achieve a deal in this time scale is impossible. Given the problems of doing so and the fact that the EU’s chief negotiator believes it to be impossible, it seems then that the no-deal brexit that Parliament has worked so hard to avoid will in fact come to fruition, just a year later than was expected. What is worse is that if Johnson has a majority, there will be no way of stopping this. This is part however of the wider lie, that the Tories will ‘get brexit done’. Even were Johnson somehow able to pull an impossible deal out of his backside, Brexit would by no means be done. We would still be 40 trade deals down, covering 70 different countries. Of those 40 trade deals, we have continuity arrangements for around 20, meaning that a version will roll over. Far be it from me to doubt our trading potential with Kosovo and the Faroe Islands, but there are many notable missing agreements. Most of our Commonwealth partners, for example, and the United States. With trade agreements taking up to a decade too negotiate and come in force, when Boris talks about getting brexit ‘done’, he clearly doesn’t mean done as such. Whatever happens, we are still at the very start of the Brexit process. With Boris not being able to secure a trade deal with the EU before the end of the transition date, it will likely end up being an even more drawn out process.

One of the most striking images of the campaign has come in the last couple of days, with Johnson confronted by a reporter with the image of a small child in a hospital in Leeds, sick with suspected pneumonia, lying on the floor of the hospital under cots on a pile of coats, because of a lack of beds. Johnson refused to look at the image, even going so far as to snatch the reporters phone, on which he was showing the image, and putting it in his own pocket. The casual callousness of Johnson’s rejection of the image speaks to his desire to enjoy the power of the prime ministerial position, without having to take responsibility for things that happen under his purview. If there is a better demonstrator of the simple lack of basic human decency inherent at the top of the Tory party these days, then I have yet to see it. In the interview, Johnson talks about the Tory manifesto pledges for the NHS, a collection of lamentations about the state of the Health Service, conveniently ignoring that the Conservatives have now been running it for nine years. Their leading promise was a pledge to supply 50,000 more nurses without identifying target dates for delivery or any specifics. As has been pointed out, in addition to the reintroduction of maintenance grants for nursing students and improved foreign recruitment, 18,500 of them would be pre-existing nurses that intend to leave the nursing career, or have left and would be tempted (somehow) to return. The Government estimates the cost of this at something around £879m, a vast underestimation compared to independent experts who estimate that the figure is closer to £2.8bn, assuming all those nurses are newly qualified, which. of course they wouldn’t be. The pledge on nurses is not the only dubious NHS related figure. Over the last couple of months the party has been loudly touting their plan to build 40 new hospitals before 2030. As has been discussed extensively, whilst this sounds good, it is not in fact everything that it might seem. Six of the ‘new’ hospitals would be upgrades to existing facilities, at a cost of £2.7bn in already-allocated funding. The remaining 34 are being given seed funding to prepare business cases for their hospitals, without any actual building work taking place. Claiming that there will therefore be 40 new hospitals would therefore seem to be a bit of a reach, as the present six are merely upgrades and the remaining 34 are almost certainly only going to be initial feasibility studies and the like, some of which may lead to further upgrades. There is also a promise to increase. the number of GP appointments by training 6000 more doctors. Quite how they would go about this, and where they are going to find candidates for all these positions domestically is not yet clear, but they may well need to reach further abroad to find potential trainees.

By this point, you might be wondering about whether there is any truth in this manifesto.That brings us to immigration. There is very little truth here either, but I needed a link. One of the major arguments of the leave campaign (arguably the thing that contributed to their victory more than any other) was that leaving the EU would allow us to control our own immigration and borders. That we had no control over this was one of the biggest lies of the entire referendum campaign. If Johnson has his way and we leave, then he is very keen to introduce what you will find referred to everywhere as the ‘Australian-style points-based system for immigration, where each applicant is assigned points based on their personal and professional characteristics, with greater numbers of points available for jobs that are in demand, good speakers of english etc. The proposed introduction of this system has caused some consternation on the basis that for immigrants from outside the EU, a similar system is already in place, the only distinct difference being that in the British-style system determining who is qualified for a particular job is decided by the employer, as opposed to the Australian-style system where that decision is made by the Government. Exactly how this system would work is unclear, and even Johnson himself doesn’t seem to have a clue. Present government policy is that skilled workers with salaries over £30,000 will need to be sponsored by their employer and will be able to bring their families and dependents with them, with no cap on their numbers. This will leave an enormous gap for lower skilled migrants whose visas will last only for 12 months. Given that the government doesn’t seem to have a clue how the proposed new system is going to work, it is difficult to see how it would play into present policy, or whether it would replace it entirely. The major problem with immigration is that for the Tories, particularly as they have travelled more rightwards, it has become even more of a dog-whistle problem. It’s a vote winner, and promising harsher and harsher restrictions on immigration, whether they are achieved through a points based system, or other restriction mechanisms will be something that they lean into.

Traditionally the Conservatives have always claimed to be the party of Law and Order. It’s an image that over the decades they have done much to burnish. It is also an image that in one electoral generation they look set to utterly destroy. The most obvious expression of this is their pledge to put 20,000 new police officers on the streets. A large amount, sure, but still not enough to make up for the 26,000 that they took off the streets over the post-recession austerity period. The pledge for more police officers does not stand in isolation. It has come in conjunction with a pledge for longer sentences for guilty criminals and quicker trials. With the legal system already creaking under decades of underfunding, quite how they will undertake this remains unclear. It is on this subject that the lies have been perhaps most egregious. The recent terror attack on London Bridge opened up a new avenue for them to lie about the state of the criminal justice system. Sentencing, they argue is weak. Criminals are wild on the streets and human rights legislation prevents proper sentences being given. They make no mention of the trial delays and closed courts that mean that even when a case is solid, it may not be before a judge for months at best. After 9 years of Tory cuts, access to justice is at a minimum, far below where it should be. And yet there is no talk of funding increases, of reopening courts to handle an excessive workload that is driving any hope of true and timely justice to the brink of extinction. Instead, they talk of quicker trials, of harsher sentences and of increased arrest rates as a consequence of more police on the streets. All things, in short, that would vastly increase the pressure on the legal system. They are yet to explain how that system is meant to cope with it, when it has been cut beyond the bare bones. Their interpretation of law and order it seems has very little to do with the proper supporting of the law, and even less with ideas of justice.

One of the most alarming parts of the Tory manifesto was widely ignored at the time of release, though has subsequently gained some attention, though not nearly enough. Buried in amongst all the rubbish about the NHS, and the tosh about policing, is the following commitment:

We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, whilst ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delay”

In short? They will constrain human rights, and reform judicial review to make it more difficult to seek. In doing so, they pledge to vastly limit the mechanisms by which government decisions can be challenged, and to limit the powers of the Courts to intervene to prevent abuses of human rights and government authority. The significance of this should not be underestimated. It is there no doubt because of the humiliating defeats this Government has suffered in Courts when their attempted breaches of the law have been challenged. The restriction of the powers of the Courts to intervene would mean a vast increase in the authority of central government, with no effective recourse. The Government could make a decision, and it would be impossible not only to have it examined by an independent body, but even to challenge it at all. This should stir the fear of god in any citizen who loves liberty. A government that cannot have its decisions effectively challenged is not a democratic one, but a tyranny. This section of the manifesto goes far beyond any other manifesto in recent times. It does not merely represent an economic threat, like Brexit; or a threat to individual health like consistent NHS cuts; but an existential threat to democracy and the rule of law in this country, two of our proudest traditions. That the Tories even feel able to put it in represents how far we have fallen, and how important it is to curtail the rot.

Tory public spending plans are very limited. The reason for this is clear. There are two competing impulses, firstly to keep within their self-set spending principles, and secondly to not spend so much that they would have to admit that taxes would have to be raised to pay for spending pledges. The manifesto is therefore in line with their pledge that austerity is now ended, but it goes no further than is necessary. Indeed, the spending plans are so modest that most governments would be ashamed to present them as a mid-budget statement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies levelled a similar amount of criticism at the Tory spending plans as they did the Labour ones. The Tories, they suggest, would end up spending significantly over their plans, and were being disingenuous in their attempt to maintain the lie that improved public services could be achieved without increasing taxation. Similar problems, in that regard, to Labour. Pledges not to raise income tax, NI or VAT were described as ill-advised, and the party was criticised for it’s NHS spending, which would mean that despite the pitch that the Tories would be spending more on the NHS, funding for the venerable institution would still be 14% lower by 2023/2024 than it was over a decade earlier in 2010/2011. It would seem that the question “When is an increase not an increase” has been answered.

It is more or less the only question that will be answered by the Tory manifesto. It is disappointingly, almost shamefully thin. The document a student hands in when he only started work on his paper in a drunken stupor the night before. The reason is clear, the Tories are placing all their stock in people’s desire to finish off Brexit quickly. The pursuit of this impossibility it would seem has subsumed everything else. What plans there are in the document are ill-thought out, reactionary, and have the potential to be immensely damaging to the very fabric of our society. Make no mistake, a vote for this manifesto is a vote to undermine the basic principles of the United Kingdom. The Tories however, should be wary of putting all their eggs in one basket. Particularly such a tenuous one, being held by such an unsteady hand.

A liar, a rake and a scoundrel walk into a bar. And the barman says, “What will it be Mr Johnson?” It’s an oldie, a goody, and possibly the best and most accurate summary of the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has finally reached the position that he has aspired to for the whole of his political life, and do you know, I don’t think he is enjoying it half as much as he thought he would. You can see it in the increasingly world weary look he wears. His boyish bounce is no longer so bouncy, and the self-confident smile he always used to wear now looks like the ghoulish grin of a man who realises that he has been lowered into the cess-pit, and he was the one controlling the crane. It turns out it’s a lot easier to make a carefully-selected, supportive Conservative crowd who are fundamentally behind you laugh at your bad jokes than it is before a broad public audience at least half of whom hate you. The inability to make people laugh and uphold his “man of the people” persona though may be the least of Johnson’s problems. As is entirely appropriate of the person who leads the country scrutiny is a lot more in depth when you are Prime Minister, and for Johnson this is a problem. He has always worked best when there was little to no oversight, or when that oversight was conducted by people who were sympathetic, or at worst, that Daddy knew. Being Prime Minister it turns out reveals quite a lot about one’s private life.

Perhaps the biggest problem Johnson has is one of trust. It’s the question he gets asked most often in interviews: “Why should people trust you?” and it’s a good one, primarily because it has no good answer. Famously Johnson claimed prior to the date that we would leave the European Union on 31st October come what may. He would, he said, “die in a ditch” rather than cave on that one. Quite the declaration. You may very well wonder then how we come to be in December without said ditch being occupied by the (at this point probably quite cold) body of the PM. It turns out, surprising just about no-one that when Johnson said that, he did not in fact mean literally dead in a ditch. Or even imprisoned, or removed as Prime Minister because he decided to defy an act of Parliament. One of his big arguments against it is that people should examine his political record, working on the assumption of course that no normal voter would do so. Unfortunately he is right. When his record is examined, it is a litany of failure, overspending of public funds and shallow publicity stunts. From the failed Garden Bridge project when he was Mayor of London, to his failure as Foreign Secretary to meaningfully engage with his duties, he has consistently failed to demonstrate an aptitude for anything but self-promotion, and a lack of talent matched only by the rest of the current Parliamentary front benches.

It is not only his political record that bears examination. HIs long journey to the office of Prime Minister, a role he has consistently believed he as born to play, has been lined and indeed bolstered by his willingness to abuse, threaten and demonstrate bigoted attitudes. Looking at the Tory Party as it is now, perhaps it was inevitable that he would rise to the top. When he was a journalist, his articles and columns were full of the sort of comments that deserve righteous condemnation. From the articles where he referred to homosexuals as ‘tank-top wearing bum boys’, to those where he described Muslim women wearing burqas as looking like ‘letter boxes’, to those where he described Africans as ‘picanninies with watermelon smiles’, Johnson’s journalistic career provides a record of someone willing to say anything and express any horrific view in order to rise to the top. Now, I do not know if in his heart-of-hearts Johnson is a racist, but there comes a point at which it doesn’t matter, and your comments stand as their own condemnation. He has consistently demonstrated racist, homophobic and islamophobia attitudes and his willingness to demonstrate these alone, whether or not they are genuinely held beliefs or mere dog-whistles render him unfit for high office. If Johnson’s attitudes are disgusting, then they are perhaps well placed at the head of a Conservative Party that increasingly demonstrates islamophobia and racist attitudes. One of the leading figures protesting and raising this has been the former party chairman Baroness Warsi, who has campaigned fiercely against it. Unfortunately, her efforts seem to have come to nought, and a brief ray of light that seemed to emerge during the last Tory leadership contest where Sajid Javid seemingly succeeded in committing all candidates to an independent investigation of the parties problems, has been nullified by Johnson’s insistence that such an investigation should be a general one, not focussed on the Conservative Party. Javid, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, seems merrily to be going along with this. The Tories problem with racism is an old one, but it was one that fell from public attention a little during the reinvigoration of the Cameron years. In reality, it never disappeared, merely festering in quiet corners, emerging only occasionally (particularly during the referendum where immigration was a major issue) to dog the reformist party leader. With Cameron’s fall and the triumph of the Brexiteers, the dam was broken, and the previously hidden xenophobia and racism began to emerge again. In the House of Commons, MPs such as Bill Cash openly started using xenophobic rhetoric. Instances of islamophobia and general racism began rising again, there was a new willingness to push the bounds of acceptable conduct. The sinners were only emboldened during the May era. May was too busy failing to deal with everything else, and she made no attempt to even fail to deal with the rising tide of bigotry. When she resigned, the party was faced with the choice of returning to the Cameron era of reform and outreach with someone like Rory Stewart, or of leaning into the new Toryism, a regressive approach taking the party back to the worst of the old days. In choosing Johnson, they decidedly pitched for the latter. Johnson’s history of expressing bigoted views and the lean towards a hard Brexit brought back individuals that the party had thought itself rid of. Ex-UKIPers who had left the party when it started to move towards the centre began to come back. The Tory party today is riddled with bigotry and attitudes that have no place in a modern civilised society, and the leadership will not deal with it because it is these people whose votes they rely on. If they divest themselves of them, they divest themselves of their key voter base.

This campaign has been unprecedented for many reasons, but I want to say that it has been the worst conducted campaign in history. The quality of the discourse has been tragic. The blame for this lies with all parties, but it is difficult not to condemn the Conservatives most of all. Look, lets not beat around the bush, politicians will always tell white lies. They will dissemble, they will conveniently misspeak. That has always been a part of politics. But something has changed. Whereas once the lies were small lies, a little misinterpretation of the figures here, a little false placing of blame there, they have become different. Politicians have become more willing to speak the most egregious of lies, lies that are easily disproved. They will not only tell them, but they will double down on them when confronted with the evidence, inviting people to disbelieve the evidence, in an attempt to create their own reality. The playbook comes straight from America, from a more tribal political system, where the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has become a primary concern for those diligently searching for truth and a better politics. It is no small thing, the effect on the public discourse is corrosive. We live in a system where the general public is not taught the basics of critical thinking or evidence handling, so they have no way to determine the accuracy of statements. And when they have no way to decide who they should trust, they will inevitably listen to the loudest voices. There is an intrinsic link here to the rise of populism. Populist politicians such as those vying for our votes in this election present a simplistic view of the world which, whilst it is appealing, is not accurate. The evidence that refutes their simplistic views is hidden behind arcane studies and tables, not easily accessible to the general public. Fact-checkers can do fantastic work to counter the mythological narratives that the politicians push, but they have limited capacity to do so. This election has been the worst expression so far of this deterioration. With barely a day going by without a campaigner openly lying about something. Unfortunately, because it has been quite a rapid onset change, journalists and interviewers have yet to work out how to effectively counter it. Until they can do so, or individual citizens are given the tools to critically analyse information for themselves, we may be doomed to be in a cycle of deterioration.

The worst thing about this election is that it looks like the barrage of Tory lies and rubbish is going to pay off. At the moment, they seem to be on course for a significant majority. Make no mistake that a Tory majority would be an absolute catastrophe. It will likely lead to an unstoppable no-deal Brexit, and the erosion of our democracy and the rule of law. If you think those that have opposed them are going to get away with it, you have another think coming. The candidates for this election have been specifically picked for two things. Loyalty, and the willingness to push Brexit through at all costs. If the Tories win a majority, there will be no independent thinkers a la Gauke and Grieve, willing to stand against the whips in defence of the system. No Letwins willing to bring legislation to stop the government riding roughshod over ancient constitutional traditions. No Ken Clarkes, elder statesmen willing to steady the ship of state to save it from the depredations of a Government that secured a majority on the basis of lies and dissembling, and is willing to use that majority however it was achieved, to destroy the basis of modern society in pursuit of a xenophobic, ideological agenda. Just an endless line of mediocrities, lining up and tramping dutifully through the voting lobbies, ushered by whips following the will of a charlatan leader with no sense of responsibility, moral or otherwise, and who is willing to do anything to secure his place in history.

The news may not be all bad however. The Tory plan is based on a short-term approach. They reason that if they get Brexit over and done with and then try to pursue a populist domestic agenda then they can stay in government for the immediate future. They may well be right. But the next significant generations flowering onto the political and electoral scene are growing up in a time of scepticism, where people are willing to go and check facts. They are political cynics. People might slide right-wards as they get older, but these are people from my generation. People who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, and who will not forgive those who, in their drive to secure the result of one vote, on one day, are prepared to ruin the economy and the social fabric of society. The Tories might be able to secure a large vote share now on the basis of a thin lie to ‘get Brexit done’, but what about in ten years, when the results of Brexit are clear? When the economy lags behind that of Europe, and the doldrums of the financial markets become more tempestuous again? The Tories and their enablers should be cautious. In the long term, the only real ruin might be their own.

Stephen Hill

The Assayer

Twitter: @stephenjahill

10th December 2019

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