Sunday 19 November 2023

On Tory Briefcases

With the return of Dave to frontline politics and James Cleverly displacing the vengeful but weak Suella Braverman, there has been a sense among Westminster watchers that something has changed. The policy agenda hasn't. The new Home Secretary is apparently keen on making sure the Rwanda deal happens and the deportations begin as soon as possible. In time for May, perhaps? What we're seeing the return of is not "sensible politics", which have never really existed, but an attempted restoration of the pre-Brexit vibe economy.

What do we mean? Cast your mind back to how politics was performed before the referendum spoiled their game. On the one side there was Dave, George Osborne, and Nick Clegg. Opposing them was Ed Miliband and then, as now, an unremarkable clone army of inauthentic witterers and empty suits. There were some political differences between the two sides. Labour experimented with some social democratic-sounding policies and occasionally (very occasionally) uttered the word 'inequality'. All this while promising not to cut too far or too fast. There's a rousing slogan if there ever was one. And on the other? Some of the most appallingly destructive and cruel policies this country has ever seen. An unnecessary restructure that severely weakened the NHS but made it easier for Tory donors to get their slice of state money. The collapse of child and adult social care. Cuts to schools. The evisceration of the civil service and public services generally. And the return of social security cruelties not seen since the workhouse. Punitive sanctions that left people destitute. The grim farce of the bedroom tax, and the indignity of the work capability assessment. This is before we even mention the couple of hundred thousand excess deaths that occurred before the pandemic thanks to their programme of cuts.

Yet, to look at Dave, Osborne, and Clegg, their horrific legacy was delivered with an observance of the rules of the constitutional game. They were courteous in public, paid lip service to the rule of law, pretended their policies were driven by evidence and not ideology (and certainly not interests). They gave off a vibe of being at ease in office, of having a plan for dealing with the problems they defined and definitely exacerbated, and all three were accomplished performers in the media. Not that it mattered much. They too were beneficiaries of the real blue wall - the barrier collectively erected by the right wing press against criticism and democratic pressures. Marrying this to always being seen in a suit and never in casual clothing, and how comfortable they were in front of TV camera,s they gave off vibes of competence. They had their long-term economic plan, even though it didn't exist. They knew what they were doing, when the indices for GDP and living standards showed they did not. Their accomplishment was seeding a structure of feeling that appealed to just enough people to win the Tories their second term and a slim majority.

This is what briefcase Toryism is. For instance, if like Dave and Osborne Boris Johnson had nodded to constitutional niceties, never contrived to outrage, and wasn't stupid enough to unnecessarily break his own laws and shield favoured lackeys from accountability, he'd still be in office. To be seen playing by the rules of the game protects a politician from media commentators and other politicians who affect to uphold these conventions. This is what separates Rishi Sunak from Johnson and Liz Truss. His expensive suits and shoes, the efforts gone to for personal branding, the niche he carved out in the Tory leadership contest he lost - of lecturing the other candidates on fiscal probity - marked him out as the "serious" choice. Which is one reason why the membership rejected him. When the wheels fell off Truss's premiership, it was the sensible people who steadied government and then secured the top job for the right man. It's true Sunak has proven just as useless as his predecessor, but his own approach to governing the country is an unshowy affair of not doing much. Except for outsourcing the unpopular populism to noted right wingers.

Therefore, it doesn't matter what Sunak's particular politics are. It doesn't even count that he was a Brexiteer. He has the smooth, business-like habitus of a Cameroon. His very appearance and manner of speaking recalls the memory of the Coalition government, and the vibe he wants to give off is underscored by bringing Dave back into government. Briefcase Toryism is their version of sensible centrism, and ticks exactly the same boxes. Both pride themselves on what you might call heady pragmatism. A hard worship of accomplished fact, which are selected for and refined by media and political framing. In as much as they differ, it's on the specifics of managing the class relations and contradictions of British capitalism. And, true to this tradition, Keir Starmer has yet to offer a programme for fixing its problems. He too is content to emit the right vibes, and this is undoubtedly a preview of what to expect more of when he's in office.

However, a long hibernation awaits Tory briefcaseism. With defeat inevitable and a period of right wing ascendency in the party likely, where do the so-called "good" Tories go? Do they snipe from the sidelines to fill the copy of their dwindling press? Cross the floor? Leave the Commons for profitable opportunities outside? Bed down and snooze until better times come? Whatever is the case, now the briefcase tendency has a firm grip on the leadership they are the ones who will cop the blame for the coming disaster. At least their outfits will come in handy for the post-politics job interviews.


Rodney said...

If, as you reasonably suggest elsewhere, the next GE is going to go so badly for the Tories that the Lib Dems are more likely to be the ones to benefit from Starmer's mistakes in government it seems likely the "good" Tories will go yellow.

Starmer's premiership is going to be an interesting experiment in how far rule by vibes can go. A lot of people will be voting Labour in the desperate hope things will materially improve for them and even the more committed supporters assume it will become 1997 again if Starmer wins. I for one am not looking forward to experiencing what happens when a government with a massive majority offering nothing but vibes runs headlong into tremendous public disenchantment.

Blissex said...

«what happens when a government with a massive majority offering nothing but vibes runs headlong into tremendous public disenchantment»

For 12 years the Conservatives have offered to their "Middle England" constituency much more than vibes, but more affordable wages for their servants, and much improved rents and prices for their properties.

After ballooning in 2021 and 2022 property prices are now deflating a bit (even if rents are ballooning) so property owners who are unthinkingly greedy are resentful and they don't remember just how fast they have risen since 2019.

Will property prices recover before the general election? In 1997 they had started recovering, but still tory voters wanted to punish the Conservatives for the just-ended crash. But then it had been a much deeper and longer crash than the current deflation. My guess is that Sunak etc. will greatly increase immigration again (it has been booming since brexit) as a quick way to boost property profits, even if the immediate effect is more on rents than prices.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Thanks Phil for that - undoubtedly the longest answer to a short question I have ever had. But helpful.

@Blis, honestly, not everything can be explained by property prices. But lets assume you are correct and Sunak decides that more immigration will push up property prices (?). The idea that increasing immigration would go down well with a considerable proportion of voters is interesting. The Tories have been shifting right to try to prevent some of their support moving to Reform. If Sunak were to follow your advice it seems that would almost certainly erode the Tory vote from the right. As Starmer is already moving in from the centre, that squeezes them even further. So, it would seem to be a way of guaranteeing that defeat is even greater than currently predicted.

Of course, the idea might be scorched earth, to make it such a complete sh*t show that Labour is destroyed by trying to fix it. But that's really stretching credulity. Not so much that Labour could be damaged by their failure to sort things out (they will be), but the idea that Sunak is machiavellian enough to plot such a scheme.

As I see it, the centre is likely to hollow out. Because further economic woes will push people towards change. The status quo loses its attraction when times are tough and look like getting tougher. So, moving right is what the Tories will do. But why vote for the fake when the real thing is available in Reform? Starmer is moving right too, which leaves space to the left. The natural inertia of many voters and the FPTP system means these effects are much reduced compared to Europe, but we are facing unprecedented times, so it is conceivable that Labour and the Tories will both implode over the next decade. Interesting times. But not in a good way.

Blissex said...

On rereading this I am still astonished at how different our parallel universes are:

* My impression is that in our blogger's reality the Conservatives are a bunch of inept crazies who keep screwing over their party members and voters by reducing their income and their state services, and those continue to vote for them only because the clever right-wing media keep fooling their feeble minds with pro-Conservative propaganda. The Mandelson Tendency instead are apolitical managerialists who risk losing a part of their base.

* In my fantasy world instead the Conservatives are cynical and clever operators who while making some occasional mistake have been skilled at talking bullshit to cover redistributing enormous amounts of wealth and income to their party members and voters from the lower classes and have been their shrinking the state services mostly used by those who don't vote for them, while the right-wing media have been attacking them because they are the wrong sort of thatcherite. While the Mandelson Tendency are thatcherites not so well disguised as technocrats and are pleased to lose the "trots" from their membership and even voting base.

In my fantasy world not recognizing that the Conservatives are clever and have been hugely benefiting their own and thus have a big electoral base (which is also being targeted by the Mandelson Tendency) is very dangerous politically for their opponents, I guess that problem does not arise in the real world which our blogger is describing.