There was a time, until very recently, when the Conservative Party was the competent party. They were the ones you called out to clean the drains that Labour had blocked, because unlike Labour they were the ones who acted in the national interest rather than out of ideology or misguided sentiment. They had gravitas, political nous and common sense. They took the hard but necessary decisions that others were too squeamish to take, because unlike Labour they actually understood the economy. They knew that a nation couldn’t live above its means, that there were no magic money trees, and that there were times when ‘we’ all had to pull our belts in.
This reputation was always surprisingly impervious to reality. Throughout the Coalition and Cameron governments, the national debt continued to rise, even though Tory politicians insisted that austerity was the only way to reduce it. Even when the government’s own advisors argued that austerity had harmed the economy, they still continued with it. Even when social care floundered and the NHS continued its slow-motion collapse, the Tories still managed to convince the public that the damage they were inflicting on society was for everyone’s good.
Now, as a result of Theresa May’s catastrophic campaign and its unexpected denouement last Thursday, the myth of Tory competence has been well and truly shattered. It is now clear that these are not politicians who know what they are doing.
First the feckless gambler Cameron inflicted a divisive and unnecessary referendum on the country to resolve a quarrel within the Tory Party. As a result the historic defender of British business is now responsible for an economic slump that has transformed the UK into the worst-performing economy in the industrialised world. Theresa May then seamlessly and cluelessly transformed herself from quiet Remainer into the hardest of Brexiters, and did everything possible to antagonize and alienate her European negotiators.
After spending ten months promising to achieve the impossible, she then called an election that the country did not need in order to consolidate her party’s power into the next generation, only to lose her majority as a result of one of the most tin-eared and dim-witted campaigns in British history, and she leads a minority government propped up by the DUP
To say that this train-wreck is not competent does not even begin to describe it. Faced with this self-inflicted calamity, the Tory Party is desperate to save itself. That is why we heard about May’s tears over the weekend. That is why her MPs are insisting in the same dismal chorus that she showed her ‘human side’ at the 1922 Committee meeting yesterday, and why she is showing contrition – to her party, not to anyone else. That is why the new Minister for the Environment (you at the back, stop sniggering, this is serious) Michael Gove now says the government is in ‘listening mode.’
Now every Tory MP or minister exudes gravitas,forgiveness and seriousness. Even Sarah Woolaston – an MP who has at least tried to stand up for the NHS – refused to admit on C4 News yesterday that Brexit might have caused the incredible 96 percent drop in applications from EU nurses for UK jobs – this at a time when there is a 30-40000 shortfall in British nurses.
Now we hear that austerity is over, that the government will be listening to public sector workers who Corbyn mysteriously ‘tapped into.’ Now there will be school meals again, freedom for foxes, soft Brexit, red carpets for migrants, fluffy unicorns and beautifully-coloured Tory rainbows. No longer will hard-faced politicians taunt nurses with talk of magic money trees or throw back their shoulders in weird laughing fits. No longer will May seek to exclude parliament from Brexit discussions or threaten to ‘walk out without a deal.’
Now she seeks not to rule the country, but only to serve her party, as she has been doing since she was a 12-year-old girl stuffing envelopes and running through fields of wheat. All this is a massive victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party, but let no one be fooled by this apparent contrition. The only reason May & co are contrite is because they failed to achieve their objectives. The only reason they are in listening ‘mode’ is because they have been badly weakened.
But this is not a government that has any more idea about what it is doing than it did before, and it has no more concern for the national interest or the interests of British society than it did last Thursday. It has driven itself and the country into a hole and it has no idea how to get out. It is now entirely dependent for itself survival on the DUP, whose support it is cultivating regardless of the possibility that it may undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
These arrangements are unlikely to work. The DUP has apparently ‘parked’ its sectarian demands and its antideluvian social agenda in the negotiations for the time being, and intends to concentrate on financial demands – presumably to make up for the money that Northern Ireland will lose as a result of Brexit. If the government makes payouts to Northern Ireland, then other regions such as Cornwall and Wales are likely to do the same.
As far as Brexit is concerned, the DUP, like the government – and to some extent like the Labour opposition – wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants out of the things it doesn’t like and inside the things it does like. Crucially it wants a ‘soft’ border and free movement with the Irish Republic. If the government agrees to include this in its negotiating position, then it will have to make concessions that May insisted she would never make, and that the Europhobic wing of the Tory Party will not accept.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to believe that the DUP won’t try to use its position to undermine Sinn Fein, or that Sinn Fein won’t see a DUP-Tory government alliance as a threat to its own constituency. It remains to be seen whether the DUP continues with its attempt to exclude members of the security forces from investigation for actions carried out during the Troubles – an aspiration that many Tories share – but if it does, and the government agrees, then Northern Ireland may be headed for very choppy waters.
And now the Brexit negotiations loom and May’s crippled government faces the challenge of getting the ‘best deal’ – an all but impossible task even before this debacle. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this is a monumental political car-crash, like one of those scenes from Die Hard when the roads are strewn with overturned vehicles, and it should never be forgotten or forgiven. It is absolutely inexcusable. The Tory Party created it, and they own it, and no amount of grovelling or fake-contrite messaging should ever conceal the fact.
On one hand, the fact that Labour did not actually win last Thursday may turn out to be a blessing, as May and her hapless team lurch forward with staring eyes and frozen smiles on the road to international ridicule and humiliation, because otherwise a Labour government would have taken all the blame that will now be heaped on these duplicitous buffoons.
But that doesn’t mean that Labour will glide smoothly into power when the last wheels come off the Tory machine. Faced with the prospect of another election and the possibility of defeat, the Tory Party will close ranks. Some individuals may go – May being the most likely, but others will take their place. They will obfuscate, lie, and distort, blame the opposition and do whatever it takes to preserve their careers and ensure that the Tory Party survives.
And next time they will do it better. They will not underestimate Corbyn. They now understand that they are facing a movement that is not like anything this country has seen before. They will develop tactics, messages and strategies to deal with it.
Hopefully none of this will be able to save them, but they should not be underrated either. Because if clowns like these can win more than thirteen million votes, then they cannot be written off, and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that they get the political punishment they surely deserve.