LAn the basis that it is kind to feel the pain of others, one might reasonably ask: what can it be like right now to be a proper one-nation Tory? Those of us outside the blue tent cannot know, but there are clues as to how horrible it is getting in there.
Imagine how bad things have got if Steve Baker, the influential MP and the dogged soul who did so much to drag his party and us into the wilderness of Brexit and then to terrorise the PM into minimising lockdown restrictions – so no Guardianista he – feels willing and able to rebuke Johnson on how the party is now positioned on race.
“We just have to get alongside those players who are taking the knee, and understand they are not saying ‘defund the police’; they’re not anti-capitalist," Baker said. Ellos eran, he continued – stating a fact most can see as blindingly obvious – seeking to show “solidarity with those who suffer racism”.
One can sense the anxiety when the England international Tyrone Mings very publicly blames Priti Patel for creating the toxicity that led to fellow players being racially abused after Sunday’s Euro 2020 final, and then the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, once tipped as a future party leader, dice: “The painful truth is that this guy is completely right,” adding that he is “very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into”.
If they worry, it’s with good reason. By accident or design, Johnson and his retinue, with their nativism and culture warring, are taking quite the gamble with the future of their party.
Six years ago, when David Cameron was prime minister and things were bad but nowhere near as bad and chaotic as they are now, I made a BBC radio documentary about the Conservative party and its attempt to secure its future in diverse Britain by making itself more palatable to minority voters. We called it Erasing Enoch – referencing the notoriously racist 1964 election campaign speech by Enoch Powell that defined the relationship between the Tories and black Britain for a generation and more afterwards.
The thesis was that, contrary to the delusion liberals often have, there is a recognisable strain of conservatism within many minority communities that sits fairly easily with the values Tories like to claim for themselves: the ideas of self-reliance, of “traditional” families and financial prudence.
The biggest impediment to that is, and has always been, racismo. You might earn enough to want to minimise your tax, or have pulled yourself up into the target demographic, but why would you vote for a party that treats you badly or clearly thinks ill of you? I put this to Grant Shapps, then party chairman. He said it was a top priority. I told him the Tories’ ability to repel minority voters seemed like a sort of genius in reverse.
Buoyed by research from the pollster Lord Ashcroft, even a leader with judgment as poor as Cameron’s could see that in a changing world, with Tory-held suburban marginals not as white as they were, the party had to detoxify itself. Theresa May saw it too. True, she had the deranged preoccupation with immigration that gave us the appalling “go home” vans during her term as home secretary, and later the Windrush scandal. But she also had the nous to position her party as one determined to tackle “burning injustices”. She set up a racial equality taskforce. She said she was passionate about it, and she might have been. In any event, it was good politics.
And then came Johnson. It was never quite clear which way he would jump because, as we know, he doesn’t passionately believe in much, save for his advancement and survival. But what he has ultimately chosen to do is to completely abandon detoxification for the more immediate, short-term gain of a “red wall” strategy. Detoxification was hard slog. Even in his 2019 landslide only 20% of black voters voted Tory. En 2015 it had been 23%. Making grandiose step-change promises to predominantly white voters in previously Labour northern seats, pitting them against metropolitan diversity and southern “elites”, was much easier.
But he doesn’t have a step-change plan, and certainly no game-changing money with which to cement their loyalty. A “levelling-up fund” of just £4.8bn. A training pot of £111m. And from yesterday’s big levelling-up speech in Coventry, £50m for new football pitches and a plea for ideas from the public. Hardly a new world. Even the new royal yacht project is getting £200m. Just this week, a group of 50 Conservative MPs called for extra investment in northern England. And what does his former aide Dominic Cummings say? “Crap speech (same he’s given pointlessly umpteen times) supporting crap slogan.”
So to plan B: the culture war, the war on “woke”, the deliberate stoking of grievance to show that while his pockets are empty, his heart is full. Trump did it brilliantly; Johnson, confounding the accusation that he studies nothing, studied the former president well. Y por supuesto, our PM is a protege of the strategist Lynton Crosby, who wields division and rancour in politics like a surgeon wields a scalpel.
In one sense, it appears to have worked. The Tories ran off with Hartlepool; and thanks to Labour’s weakness, Johnson still scores well in the polls. But something has gone awry – because the stance that seemed such a good idea when Johnson and Patel were giving succour to those who boo Inglaterra players looks awful when so much of the country, including the new voters he is so desperate to retain, supports the heroic, maligned players. He drew a dividing line, and found much of decent opinion on the other side of it.
And this is why thinking Tories worry. He has trashed the strategy he inherited but shows no sign that he has full control or understanding of his own. Maybe those new seats will stay loyal if he continues to peddle division and grievance. They’d better, because in the meantime any hope that his grassroots will grow to be as diverse as his cabinet is for the birds. Rishi is there: great. So is Sajid Javid. Good for us, good for them. But so is Priti. You get the point. A diverse cast – but still, thanks to its star, a rotten show.
So in the aftermath of this week’s debacle, with the anti-wokery having misfired, aligning those who say the party is anti-anti-racism with those who say it is Islamophobic, decent folk in the blue tent have a choice. Do they stick with Boris’s own brand of identity politics, or resume the attempt to fashion a sustainable party attractive not just to a targeted group of working-class white communities but also to liberal Tories and Tory-minded minorities? Boris stands for Boris; we know that. But the others – what do they stand for?