I apologise for my small part in the Tory fiasco…

Published by The i paper (22nd May, 2023)

I must start with an apology. Shortly after leaving my job as deputy editor on a national newspaper 13 years ago, I was invited to work as a speechwriter for David Cameron, then leader of the opposition. So I spent seven weeks on the inside of a landmark general election campaign, then observing formation of the country’s first coalition government for more than six decades. 

It was fascinating to participate. My role was pretty insignificant but I saw some impressive operators in action and managed to soften the tone of the Conservative manifesto on immigration. Yet the legacy of my boss’s success is evident today in the corroded political and economic landscape of our nation. Now the party ushered into power by Cameron whom I helped has been in charge of our country for longer than New Labour.

At least those governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could boast of making positive change to Britain, despite the factional feuding, silly spin and pathetic stunts on crime, although it is impossible to ignore the sordid invasion of Iraq that so devastated the Middle East, weakened the West and empowered our enemies when assessing its record. But it had run out of steam. Brown proved to be a hollow man having achieved power, then gave voters a glimpse of their entitled arrogance when turning on “a bigoted woman” supporter who dared challenge him over migration in that campaign.

Yet what has been achieved by the Tories through 13 years in office and five prime ministers? The economy is stuttering, the cost of living rising, wages stagnating, taxes higher than ever in peacetime and yet many public services from housing through to the police and railways look broken.

Nurses and teachers are snared in the band of higher-rate taxpayers, the health service soaks up a rising share of the budget yet remains in permanent crisis while almost nothing gets done to tackle deep-rooted problems in areas such as social care and mental health that affect millions of lives.

The state’s failure is symbolised by privatised water companies paying hefty dividends to shareholders while pumping filth into seas and rivers, then demanding billions from hard-pressed customers to clear up their mess.

Even those in charge have started moaning about problems they are paid to solve. Michael Gove, the minister responsible for housing, complains there “simply aren’t enough homes” in Britain after all his years sitting around the Cabinet table while the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, blames everyone but herself as annual net migration numbers soar towards the one million mark.

Her risible solution is to suggest a few more Britons pick raspberries while handing cash to a bloodstained dictator in Rwanda so she can look tough by sending a few refugees to Africa. Then we hear Jacob Rees-Mogg brazenly admit the introduction of voter ID was an attempt at “gerrymandering” – yet such is their ineptitude, the plan flopped in local elections when frustrated voters turned on the Tories.

No one has a clue over their economic philosophy after so much meandering since 2010. And behind so many national problems lurks the shadow of Brexit – the best possible argument for proportional representation, since the fiasco was unleashed after Cameron narrowly won outright power in 2015, leaving him in hock to the right and unable to hide behind Liberal Democrats to reject the referendum. Even Nigel Farage now admits “Brexit has failed”. The car industry – a totemic sector reflecting the zeitgeist in its ups and downs over the decades – is pleading for renegotiation. But Rishi Sunak, who backed the idea, pretends it was a success on the basis it delivered cheaper beer and sanitary pads.

Now the party right – which delivered Brexit, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – jostles for more control ahead of anticipated defeat at the next election. Last week it rallied around a “faith, family and flag” banner of National Conservatism imported from the United States. Leading lights demanded more babies to solve supposedly our most pressing problem of low birth rates and “normative families” with a “mother and father…for a safe and functioning society.”

Braverman, their new heroine, ranted against elites – although now we discover she asked Home Office officials for a private speeding course to avoid mixing with hoi polloi. Other speakers condemned “cultural Marxism”, claimed “white culture” is under threat, attacked “globalists” and defended nationalism even if “the Germans mucked up” last century with the Nazis.

This flirtation with illiberalism, nationalism and the far right is truly grim. Yet we see another layer of puke-inducing hypocrisy when former health minister Matt Hancock pops up in The Observer to warn against “a Trumpian-style takeover” of his party as he urges liberal Tories to “stand up for the centre ground to ensure this right-wing takeover doesn’t succeed”. He is right – the party’s future is at stake. Here is a character, however, who collaborated with populists to cling to his career when decent MPs were suspended and expelled by Johnson. The failure of such “moderates” to fight their cause in recent years helped lead to this disturbing point.

The Tory party clings to power but has slid a long way to the right since 2010 (and even further since those early days of Cameron’s leadership when he was most liberal, most green and most popular). They can claim domestic success on the introduction of gay marriage, a measure bitterly opposed by Rees-Mogg and his chums on the right, along with some education and environmental reforms. Sunak is trying to restore a semblance of order. But he is hindered by fanatics on his right, waging war on both their own party and on modernity in a fast-changing, liberalising nation. The result is a party that looks anachronistic, self-absorbed and bereft of solutions to the nation’s problems, despised by younger voters and losing trust of businesses, graduates and many core supporters.

Cameron promised a strong, stable and decent government that rebuilt trust in politics. We have ended up even further from such ideals after 13 fractious years of failure. And as he said in his speech outside Downing Street in May 2010, we all need to face up to our responsibilities.

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