The Road to Batley and Spen, (part one).

And thence to the wilderness?

Wigan pier before levelling upWigan pier before levelling up
Observations of the political scene in two parts, part one.
George Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ came out in 1937. The publisher thought highly of the first part where Orwell had travelled North to observe what life was like whereas the latter part was all about himself and his publisher had reservations. For this post our observations are not related to a conventional journey, we are looking at a fault line in the Tory party. We are always told how popular the Government is and of its large majority. On the other hand the forces at work here might be not so much about the popularity of one side of a political divide at the last General Election but the unpopularity of the whole of the other side. Also our road to Batley and Spen goes via Chesham and Amersham. Both these recent by-elections represented not so much a win for an opposition party but a loss for the Government. We have written before two articles about the state of the Tories, here and here . In those articles we noted there is a huge difference between the politics of things and the politics of ideas.

In both by- elections it really does look like too much of one and not enough of the other damaged the Government's chances. In Chesham and Amersham they were supposed to hold the seat, at one time their majority was over 22,000, but the LibDems got in with a swing of 25%. This was not a slip, a simple mistake, but a knock out blow for the Government. Some say there was no warning of this; which in turn begs the question why? What of the local organisation? We will come back to this later. In Chesham and Amersham two very important factors were HS2 and the proposed changes to planning law. The locals loathed both and voted to punish the Government. Successive previous governments decided to ignore public opinion on EU membership and paid the price for this. So by the same process the present Government finds itself out of favour for ignoring the public. As much as the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier was all about the author, so these two deeply unpopular things, planning reform and HS2, are all about Boris Johnson. He has set himself the task to dominate his party in all its work and the party allows him to do so. This is a common failing in UK politics, the over powerful Leader. It does not show strength but weakness. There is a popular joke about Belgium: 'name five famous Belgians'. Many people in the UK would claim to follow politics and current affairs yet few could say how many Cabinet Ministers there are and name half of them and many would struggle to name five. And the reshuffle will not have helped here!

So the PM is the Minister for Everything. There are dangers here, think Tony Blair, who always sought to be centre stage and linked to bright new projects. Eventually he was seen by the public as responsible for all that went wrong, he was the problem and not the solution, and it was this perception that was his undoing.
The present PM is treading the same path, he is obsessed by infrastructure - perhaps he was denied Lego as a child? Not a week goes by without him going the fancy dress route dressed as Bob the Builder. He fails to spot that this bricklayer from Eton character he has scripted for himself has severe comedic, theatrical and political limitations. It does not inspire, as a political ploy it bores. It's getting close to being counter productive yet, without a trace of self doubt or self awareness, the PM carries on. Does he have deep thoughts about this infrastructure and building malarkey? After all he got in to trouble decorating his Downing Street flat. Well up to a point yes he does. Following the G7, which gave him another opportunity for him to demonstrate his grasp of performance art, he trotted out one of his famous pearls of wisdom: "Build back better but in a more feminine way". As a joke this may have been ideal for the crowd at the Bullingdon Club or a smart-alec remark to a Tutor at Oxford but not much else.

We should remember that Chairman Mao liked to be photographed swimming in the Yangtze river. Perhaps Mao, 'The Great Helmsman', thought this was what, 'the people', would do on a rare day off work. Inspired by this our PM, 'The Great Bricklayer', while at the G7, went for a swim in Carbis Bay. Why ape the actions of one of the worlds greatest despots? Perhaps our PM thought this act would set modern day Beijing back on its heels, it being another turning point in world events? That's doubtful as in Beijing they have seen that the UK, whoever is the Leader, is a soft touch. Can you imagine Mao being pushed around by SAGE? Naturally the swim by Mao was stage managed and it was ridiculed. So you would have thought the PM would have seen the danger of this stunt. Then again perhaps Mrs Mao said: "Helmsman go for a swim then take the dog for a walk". But the whole G7 was a farce and not just the aquatic goings on, they were just part of it. So while the Carbis Bay swim failed to impress world leaders, the ordinary man who would have gone to Cornwall by train found himself being lectured on decarbonising by, 'The Great Hypocrite', for the PM went to the G7 in Cornwall by private jet.

And so to Batley and Spen, also a by-election shock. Journalist Rod Liddle had suggested the Labour party would come third. In so doing he and others contributed to the idea the Tories could win. Wrong again, Labour won. So the same question comes back, why was this missed by those who are supposed to know? Well it depends who you ask and what they know. With Chesham and Amersham the policies and things related directly to the PM were HS2 and planning reform. In that respect the PM was ‘there’. By contrast in Batley and Spen he was absent. As we have said before we have the politics of things, like infrastructure, and the politics of ideas. By virtue of the failure of the PM to speak up for the teachers from Batley Grammar school, he was absent. And all this time on, one of the teachers is still in hiding following death threats and still the PM is silent. Yet when a pair of drunken yobs shouted at a member of the SAGE team our PM speaks out. Prof Chris Whitty may even get police protection following the incident, his life was never in danger, unlike the teacher from Batley who was threatened and nobody in authority appears to be bothered about his plight. The Batley Grammar school issue is all about free speech but this is a subject too subtle for the higher echelons of the Tory party. This has caused an outcry in the middle and lower levels of the party. This blog knows of one recently elected councillor and other elected party officials who have said they would not vote for the party because of this failing. It’s interesting to note that the Free Speech Union started just before the PM took office, this was a coincidence. But since taking office the PM has done next to nothing to halt the decline in this vital freedom.

So what of the Tory party? It is not in good health and is wasting away under the feet of the party administration. This is clear to activists but the party will not publish membership numbers. In many parts of the UK the party is in a very poor state with some districts reporting around half of the Constituency Associations not functioning as they should. Membership is fluctuating, usually people are just fed up with the party and fail to renew membership. If they resign then the reasons given vary but the failure of the party to uphold conservative values are most prominent. Specifically they see the high levels on spending without controls, things like: HS2, the Furlough scheme and various wokery schemes. It’s a myth that the PM is universally popular within the party. Prior to his election many mid-level officers in the party were relaxed about saying of Johnson how, ‘they did not trust him’. They knew his record and they knew he was unreliable but the Leadership choice for the party was a bit like a choice between toothache or an ingrowing toenail. The party, like much of the country wanted to move on, so the slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’ became a viable rallying cry. But is Brexit, done’, why is Lord Frost still working? This like so much of what the Government does seems to hover in limbo between two states. Think of the people of Northern Ireland who have had promises made to them but no conclusion to their status. So much so that the ‘done’ part of the slogan looks fraudulent.

Dominic Cummings has praised the elegance of the slogan of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which was, 'Peace, Land, and Bread'. ' Take Back Control' was similarly effective and apposite. But in general slogans are not an ideal tool for a political party, ‘levelling up’; what does it mean? It’s actually quite clever in that it means all things to all people. However, this is halfway to meaning nothing to everyone. It’s put out at every opportunity and passed off as a policy. It is not. It’s just a slogan in the advertising agency tradition, 'it washes whiter' or 'reaches parts other beers cannot reach' Its ubiquity is its weakness and critics call it creepy too, fearing it will morph into ' strength through joy' at any moment.

Two great problems have befallen the PM since he took office. Covid and the fall of Afghanistan. The covid saga is a bit like Brexit in that it splits the country between those who want restrictions and those who can see beyond this policy. At the start of the pandemic the Government enjoyed huge levels of support. This generosity soon faded as mistakes came to light. The problem for the Government was that having been in power for close on 12 years blaming a previous administration for the chaos was not an option. So in fact the problems of the moment had their origins in the past. If a true and honest appraisal of covid is ever written then this will be shown to be the case.

But what we have for now is the opinion of Dominic Cummings. A figure in UK politics who has made his mark and we have written about before here. Cummings has been scathing not just about individuals from Government but about the whole of the Government effort. He has been very fair and only named elected people but to be fair to them they did not act alone. The quality of the public servants has played a huge part in the covid debacle. We also know that Cummings wanted to reform all aspects of UK government. Equally we know the PM invited him into No10 to advise on a wide range of topics. It’s hard to imagine the PM did not know of the plan to reform in this way or fail to support it at the time Cummings was appointed. The popular take on the ousting of Cummings from No10 is that the PM's wife did not like him. However, it’s equally hard to imagine she did all the heavy lifting on her own. Maybe one day we find out who helped here, perhaps the civil service played a part?

Foot note
This is the end of part one and the second part will be published soon. In that we will explore more on what reform has taken place as opposed to just more sloganeering. There is also the subject of the fiscal incontinence. Eventually all this build, build build, which is really spend, spend, spend has to be paid for via taxation and the public know this. Is this why Wigan today is still part of the Red Wall?