Welcome to the new Tory party
Published by The i paper (17th February, 2020)
Lynn Davidson may not be everyone’s idea of a hero. She is a former journalist on The Sun who works as special adviser to the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. But in these strange times bear in mind the words of Calvin Coolidge, the former United States president, who stated rightly that heroism is not only in the person, but in the occasion. So this former hack merits some applause for daring to stand up to Dominic Cummings in last week’s meeting of ministerial aides, urging him to show a bit more kindness to a team “doing their best in incredibly difficult circumstances”.
Her intervention demonstrated how much bullies dislike being confronted. Cummings, the arrogant despot of Downing Street, was reported to have offered “a partial apology” for his sneering remark at the previous gathering that “I’ll see some of you next week”. This was before the reshuffle that led to some of those in attendance losing their jobs – along with the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, who had crossed swords with the Prime Minister’s senior adviser and lost the subsequent power struggle.
The reshuffle exposed again who is really running our country. Boris Johnson is the front-of-house showman, full of spluttering bluster and braggadocio, but behind the scenes his unelected adviser pulls all the strings. This is, of course, deeply ironic since this pair led a Brexit battle to “take back control” from “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels. Javid deserves credit for refusing to buckle to their will or cling to his post at expense of his aides; such a contrast with some of his former colleagues who have sold their souls for a seat at the cabinet table.
Perhaps Davidson will soon be dispatched too, but at least she can carry her head higher. For slowly the shape of this government is starting to emerge – and it bears little in common with conservatism, let alone decency or democracy. We see a government intolerant of dissent as it seeks to eliminate space for debate and crush checks on its authority. Johnson displays a weird insecurity as he stifles internal discussion, drives out anyone that disagrees with him and lets his adviser run amok. This is poor leadership that weakens policy-making and diminishes his party.
This puerile approach to government, symbolised by the Prime Minister making his cabinet ministers chant like children for the television cameras, underlines the pair’s transformation of their party into a populist force. Cummings has made repeated attacks on the quality of government and effectiveness of the Civil Service. I share some of his concerns. But such issues are not solved by sniping. Nor by bringing in “misfits and weirdos” such as his latest acolyte Andrew Sabisky, a 27-year-old who has published disturbing views online on a range of issues from enforced contraception through to race and “intellectual disabilities”. This self-proclaimed eugenicist is reported to be “bossing the Prime Minister around already”.
Welcome to the new Tory party. Now the BBC is in their sights for refusing to slavishly toe their line. “We will whack it,” one unidentified source told The Sunday Times, outlining plans to scrap the licence fee and force it to sell most of its radio stations. The corporation makes daft mistakes, suffers inept management and is struggling to find its role in the modern media – yet it remains one of the rare institutions that remotely unifies Britain and is an admired global brand.
There is much to discuss over the BBC. My own view is that it should ditch its youth infatuation, make more distinctive programmes to stand apart from the crowd and rediscover its journalistic vigour. Its future might be as a subscription-based model. Yet we see again the Government’s stance through use of threatening off-the-record leaks, along with timid refusal to engage with news programmes that try to hold it accountable. They talk tough in private but behave like wimps in public.
Such important national debates should not be driven by intimidation. Sadly, however, this is the cowardly approach of Cummings and his Downing Street crew. We see this also over the courts. “Dom wants to get the judges sorted,” relayed the Financial Times last week from another of those anonymous sources as it reported that Michael Gove has been tasked to investigate “political interference” by judges and alleged abuse of judicial review.
Suella Braverman, the hardline new Attorney General, believes politicians must “take back control” from the judiciary. There is talk of getting key appointments cleared by Parliament. Clearly this is all payback for the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Johnson acted illegally in seeking prolonged prorogation of Parliament during the Brexit stasis.
Yet the Tory manifesto promised to “restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”. Instead from the BBC through to the courts, Parliament and Whitehall, we are witnessing an attempt at enforced subjugation to Downing Street while undermining wider democratic, legal and media accountability. This is straight out of the new nationalist playbook, as seen in Budapest, Warsaw and Washington. It has little to do with conservatism, especially when even the future of the union is at risk from these zealots.
It is almost half a century since Lord Hailsham, a Tory lord chancellor, warned about the dangers of “elective dictatorship” in a lecture at the BBC. Yet all this is being led by a shadowy character who has never faced election, seems to tolerate no dissent and is determined to reshape our nation to his own singular demands. Perhaps any conservatives still in the party that bears their name might like to recall that Edmund Burke, the philosophical father of their cause, pointed out that “all government … and every prudent act, is founded on barter and compromise”. He also warned that “the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse”.