Tuesday 1 January 2019

Regarding the Rat Race

This Christmas was a tale of two parties. Once the politicians broke up from Westminster and the immediate pressure of Brexit was off, the absence of hard news had assorted dullards fill the content-hungry maw of broadcast and print media with their favourite pastime: attacking Jeremy Corbyn. Yet on the other side of the Commons the story was somewhat different. Considering the turmoil, Rees-Mogg came out to declare there was nothing to see and, well, Tory turbulence made way for an eerie calm. That isn't to say phone calls haven't taken place and MPs weren't plotting, but rather nearly all of it taking place away from prying eyes. And as the Prime Minister spent a couple of weeks out of the spotlight (another walking holiday?), we've had some jockeying by the B-list epigoni in the cabinet.

The always-appalling Sajid Javid found his leadership positioning aided by the main news outlets. With a mild media panic generated by the usual suspects about refugees sailing/paddling across the Channel, Javid let it be known that he was cancelling his South African holiday to come back to deal with the "crisis". And he did so without challenge, as typified by this Sky News piece. There is a sinister subtext to all this. The Tories are past masters at divide-and-rule, and while immigration has slipped down the popular causes for concern since Leave won the EU referendum that doesn't mean it isn't a potent weapon. Filling TV screens with coast guards plucking refugees from dinghies with outboard motors could, if spun by unscrupulous papers and right wingers, be elided with the horrifying refugee disaster in the Mediterranean. Being seen to be all over his brief and sticking it to powerless others plays to the core vote, the editorial desks, and the dwindling party membership. Nevertheless, while a panic about refugees is just the tonic for making a case for May's tough-on-immigration Brexit deal, neither Downing Street or Javid's rivals happy to let him grandstand. Hence a pretty lame attempt to embarrass him.

Sadly, a consideration of Tory manoeuvring means pondering our mate Gavin Williamson is unavoidable. Nicknamed Private Pike by parliamentary colleagues, unlike his Dad's Army namesake Williamson gets off strutting about as if he's some military hard man. Less Lord Kitchener and more Fisher-Price Kitchen, he was on hand to greet HMS Echo arrived in Odessa before Christmas to deter the Russians - a spectacle sure to make Vladimir Putin "go away" and "shut up". More objectionable is his floating of the idiotic Empire 2.0 delusion, the view the UK can bestride the world not just as an independent economic power, but as a military one as well. In his Telegraph interview, he announced an intention to open two new military bases. One on the outskirts of the South China Sea, presumably with the view of making China think twice about its own ambitions in the region, and one in the Caribbean for, well, reasons. He also said "nations right across Africa look to us to provide the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership". Yeah, but to do what? Totally absurd. There are, however, questions outstanding. Is this government policy? How's it going to be paid for? Or is it just a dismal effort to endear the Tory faithful with its imperial fever dreams to the camp of the stupid boy? Hazard a guess.

Jeremy Hunt isn't a name that - thankfully - gets uttered much round these parts, but he too has been playing at leadership footsy. See, he's gone down the road of the "vision thing". And what would his Britain look like after Brexit? Why, he's gone and half-inched the politics of the European Research Group and holds up Singapore as his model. Sadly, their extensive state subsidised housing isn't what he has in mind. Hunt doesn't expand much on what this means but he knows something about Singapore and low taxes, and is sold on the ERG idea that becoming the global hub of tax dodging (as if it isn't already) suits the interests of him and the hedge funds and disaster capitalists that have pushed Brexit very nicely. This not only tallies with some of the interests the Tory party articulates, it can be sold to the members both as a means of cutting taxes more generally (implying moar austerity red meat) and presenting the EU with a permanent Up Yours Delors moment. Never underestimate the enthusiasm of the Conservative Party for a morally bankrupt and dismal prospectus.

Nor should one underestimate their capacity for low cunning. As weird, ineffectual and incompetent these three men are, they demonstrated a certain adroitness in their positioning. Within Tory terms, each has staked out political territory that MPs, members and, sadly, a section of the electorate, finds compelling. Borders and immigration, military and empire, tax and hard Brexit. There is nothing here with mass, cross-party appeal - unless you're a backbench Labour hawk, I suppose - but at this point there doesn't have to be. All three have shown off their wares, and should it come to facing any of them down in a general election then in all likelihood Labour will be up against a traditional Tory campaign of lies, scaremongering and scapegoating. For this party of yesterday's men and women, the Tories' past is always their future.

No comments: