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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Shooting themselves in the foot

Published by The i paper (11th October, 2021)

One morning in August 1973 an escaped prisoner strolled into a bank in Stockholm, pulled a submachine gun from beneath his jacket, fired shots into the ceiling and shouted “the party has just begun”. His name was Jan-Erik Olsson. He demanded cash, a getaway car and release of a convict pal. After he took four staff hostage and wounded a cop, there was a six-day stand-off before police pumped in tear gas to rescue the quartet. Later something strange emerged: the hostages had forged a close bond with their captor, sympathetic to his cause and more scared of police – even though he threatened to shoot one in the leg to scare those outside.

These events gave rise to the identification of “Stockholm syndrome”, the psychological condition when traumatised victims develop irrational positive feelings towards a person holding them hostage.  Observing the Conservative conference last week, it struck me how the party is suffering from a similar phenomenon. Boris Johnson used words as his weapon to seize control after leading the Brexit insurgency, while the Tories submitted freely of their own will to his demands. Yet it was weird to see how they cheered, clapped and chuckled in Manchester as he declared war on so much that they used to hold sacred.

There are, of course, valid charges of hypocrisy when a leader lashes out at his predecessors in Downing Street and their “old, broken” policies, given that he and the party promoted them for a decade. This shows again the power of tribalism; no wonder many voters despair at how little they can trust politicians. Yet ultimately it was a conference designed to flatter and glorify Johnson, exposing how the Tories have been captured by his style of populism just as surely as their Republican cousins in the United States have been taken over by the toxic Donald Trump.

Johnson’s speech showcased his wearily familiar vaudeville act. It lacked policy, contained falsehoods and ignored many swirling crises as energy prices soar, shelves empty, farms slaughter livestock, factories prepare to close, taxes soar and inflationary pressures are uncorked. Yet it is intriguing that even a party as pragmatic and power-focused as the Tories can flip direction so dramatically, turning on many former allies while its leader lurches around the political spectrum like a dead-eyed drunk trying to find his way home after closing time.

So effectively has Johnson shredded traditional Tory values that voters believe they are more likely to put up taxes after the national insurance hike than a post-Corbyn Labour Party. This is pretty remarkable for a party that long prided itself on fiscal conservatism – although perhaps not surprising under a man who is spendthrift in both his private and political life. His government, desperate to hide its ineptitude and the disastrous impact of Brexit that inflames post-pandemic global problems, turned on business to blame it for low wages, migration and poor productivity. This stance is popular, even if deceitful and economically illiterate. Yet who really expected Johnson’s jibe of “Fuck Business” to become official Tory policy?

Farmers have also been thrown to the wolves, another unexpected twist for a party that traditionally defended rural interests. Trade with their main markets in Europe has crashed while staff shortages in abattoirs and on farms have caused production breakdowns. Johnson’s flippant response, riffing about “build back beaver” in a nod to rewilding the countryside, simply fuelled despair afflicting this sector. They find themselves ignored, effectively pushed into the enemy camp – along with liberal conservatives kicked out when Johnson took control, “Remoaners” who dare point out the Brexit false promises, and those “metropolitan elites” and “woke” younger generations targeted in dispiriting culture wars.

This is typical of Johnson’s scorched-earth approach. Our key allies in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, are treated with similar contempt by a prime minister hiding his duplicity and policy vacuum behind headline-grabbing provocations. Yet in electoral terms, Johnson’s approach seems to be working. The latest YouGov poll gives the Tories an eight-point edge over Labour. This underscores how the most pertinent line in Sir Keir Starmer’s conference speech was when he said that “If they are so bad, what does it say about us?” The answer is clear: Labour looks divided, incoherent, insipid and a long way from power.

Yet the Tories should not be too sanguine amid escalating problems. Yes, they are still being cut slack for the pandemic. But politics is volatile since voters are now transactional towards parties, swayed more by competence, retail offers and political values than traditional ideology. One pollster told me the biggest jolt he saw in recent focus groups came when Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak tried to dodge isolation by claiming they were joining a test pilot scheme after a minister caught the virus in July. The pair made a rapid U-turn after a three-hour furore, but the incident cut through since it reinforced concerns that Tories are not on the side of ordinary people.

Johnson is exploiting this breakdown in ideological divisions. This explains why he can turn his fire on traditional allies and stay ahead in polls. Yet the Tories are betting their house on their duplicitous leader’s popularity as it slips in polls beneath the party’s support and concerns over competence grow. Many bedrock voters are among those most at risk from rising prices and economic chaos, whether young families in key southern seats or new red wall recruits, more vulnerable to economic pressures than typical Tory voters.

It is surprisingly easy for decent people held captive to have confused feelings towards a character who threatens their interests. Sven Safstrom, one of the four Stockholm hostages, later recalled that when threatened with being shot he thought the gunman was being kind for only targeting his leg. This is something Tories and their supporters might remember with Boris Johnson at their helm.

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