Saving the PM is the Tories’ main mission

Published by The i paper (9th May, 2022)

Blackmore Vale was a solid blue ward in a bucolic part of Somerset. It was held for the Tories by William Wallace, a Brexit-backing councillor first elected in 2005, and his colleague Hayward Burt, a national party strategist with professed expertise on defeating the Liberal Democrats. Both were swept aside last week as the Liberal Democrats fought back, capturing the council after 13 years of Conservative control. “We are winning again,” declared an excited Ed Davey on a triumphant trip to Taunton. “We’re back in places like here in Somerset and we’re going after that Blue Wall.”

Wallace told me national issues played a big role in their defeat. The same view is held by many other Tory activists around the country who saw their work sabotaged by the sordid behaviour of Downing Street over Partygate, which was then inflamed by a flailing response to the intensifying cost-of-living crisis.

No wonder the Liberal Democrat leader said it might be best for opposition parties – if not for the nation – for Boris Johnson to keep his job. Yet even Marcus Fysh, a Tory MP in Somerset, admitted voters had sent them a message “which I for one have heard loud and clear” and that it should force them to discuss the future of their own leader.

Needless to say, Johnson is determined to dig in – despite the loss of almost 500 council seats, along with three of their most iconic local authorities in London. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with his character. I had to laugh when one Tory MP said Johnson “has to prove his integrity to the country” given that this man has shown persistent lack of moral probity in his personal, professional and political life. Carlisle leader John Mallinson put it better after seeing the party trounced in his region: “Basically I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the Prime Minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”

The largely southern discomfort as support crumbled in former heartland areas should serve as a stark warning to Tories about their selfish leader’s toxicity. The elections exposed how Johnson, a former mayor of London, has shredded the Tory party in the capital: he used it as a springboard for his ambitions, then abandoned his backers in the city like a poisonous serpent shedding its skin.

Meanwhile, polls show Labour is now more popular on key issues ranging from health and housing to the economy, education and environment despite lacking any defining policies. Yet such is Johnson’s luck, the ‘Beergate’ saga swirling around Sir Keir Starmer fuels a corrosive sense of decay over our entire political elite.

So the greased piglet may slip through the hands of those seeking to restrain him again, aided by the lacklustre Labour performance outside London. Timid Tory MPs debate the impact of further police fines and pray their Prime Minister does not stray into another scandal that will stain their party further. They preserve a Conservative government devoid of competence, cohesive ideology or constructive policy as it focuses on its central mission to save its top dog, dutifully cheering on a deceitful buffoon doing profound damage to our democracy.

As one minister told The Times, there is a “fin de siècle feel”. After 12 years of Tory-led Government the party looks to have run out of ideas, lurching around the political spectrum and stumbling through scandals that reflect its amoral leader.

Look again at the losses in Somerset. An activist told me their campaign was hindered by local MP David Warburton having the Tory whip withdrawn after lurid claims of sexual harassment, drugs and dodgy dealings (he denies the allegations), then another nearby in Devon resigning after female colleagues caught him looking at pornography in parliament. The defence of searching online for tractors only furthered a disturbing sense of farce in Westminster.

Downing Street’s response will be to double down on its more divisive policies to shore up support in Red Wall areas, despite clear evidence this is driving away moderates. Already David Canzini, their combative election strategist, has ordered them to find more “wedge” issues that can winkle open gaps with opposition parties, praising the Home Office’s hideous idea of sending refugees into the arms of a bloodstained Rwandan dictatorship. This issue was red meat for the right, adored by many activists and even marginally improved Priti Patel’s limited popularity – but it also significantly boosted Labour’s lead as “most trusted party on immigration”.

There are so many crucial issues confronting our country, such as the soaring cost of living, struggling health service, chronic state of social and mental health care, global challenges to national security and urgent need for political reform. Yet this week’s Queen’s Speech will see polarising stunts pandering to the hard right with bills on Brexit, broadcasting, human rights and possibly prisoner parole, reportedly squeezing out manifesto pledges to help unpaid carers and flexible working. No doubt there will be more battles launched in the depressing culture wars, more abuse of “lefty” lawyers or marginalised groups, such as transgender citizens and refugees, to divert attention from the economic crisis, inflation and recession threat.

If national politics must influence the outcome of local elections, it would be wonderful if it was the result of fierce debate over serious issues that shape our nation. Instead we seem stuck with a Prime Minister who lacks principles or polices, yet will do anything to retain his job having displayed elitist contempt for voters during the worst public health crisis for a century. Now the opposition leader is ensnared in a furore over drinking a beer and eating a curry on the campaign trail.

The political map is still being redrawn in the wake of the Brexit debacle – yet is it any wonder that the biggest majority last week was for the growing band of disillusioned voters who elected to ignore the ballot and stay at home given the dismal state of our politics?

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