Karaoke Kuenssberg in Madchester
Live from the Bacchanalian mess that is the Tory party conference. (Picture credit: Cold War Steve)
It’s one of those strange annual spaces where their guard is down. The carnival grotesque that is the Conservative Party Conference in the middle of the harshest attacks on social welfare in living memory was an orgy of self-congratulation, back-slapping and feel-good factor frolics. As Thérèse Coffey was filmed singing “Time of My Life” at conference karaoke time she was responsible for the end of the £20-a-week universal credit uplift, the biggest overnight welfare cut since the second world war. Crass and callous doesn’t cut it. Next up was Dominic Raab not knowing what misogyny is – or Alister Jack not knowing what the Good Friday Agreement (or even ‘a majority’ is) – or MP Dehenna Davidson revelling in her “Tory Scum” status with her own stickers – sort of “Nobody Likes Us We Don’t Care” merch for Conservatives.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to this cocktail of incompetence and cruelty, other than to reflect that the social experiment of drawing the leadership to run a country from a tiny handful of English private schools hasn’t worked very well. Let us at least settle on a character study of some of the specimens from the Freak Show.
From Stoke Poges to the Tartarean Pit
Boris Johnson’s performative act, still stubbornly referred to as a ‘speech’, was described generously by some as ‘policy light’ – in truth it was more just a collection of words strung together around a series of weird memes based on a meaningless slogan. The Tories are now like pigs shitting in their own mud, then squealing with joy as the more they shit the muddier it gets. A series of critical problems created specifically by the Brexit fiasco are now being “overcome” by the very people who created them. So the army is brought in to solve any number of entirely self-inflicted problems. They are then gloried in – and In Scotland’s case – used to try and humiliate the Scottish Government – despite the fact they are plainly a sign of a dysfunctional government and a failed state – rather than the sign of a great nation re-born.
All that came out of Manchester – other than series of bizarre distraction stories was vague talk of leveling up. As I’ve said before “trickle-down economics” or “leveling up” is all pish. The “leveling up” language is less than shallow; less than one dimensional; and less than illusory. It is not “policy light” it is “policy void”.
At the end of Johnson’s incoherent ramblings he spluttered out: “a leveling up premium of £3000 to send the best maths and science teachers to the places they need the most.” This means nothing and nobody really cares. It’s almost the point of it that it means nothing and the fact that nobody cares is itself an expression of power. The Daily Express dutifully produced a rousing front cover to celebrate the Prime Minister’s finest hour, or something.
The fact that Boris is more Fred Dukes than Tony Stark is obvious to anyone without a passing knowledge of the Marvel multiverse – but the mass disinformation is only successful with a pliant media.
In his conference speech Boris blundered along with his usual blast of obscure Greek references, insult and dad-joke-style wordplay. Dishing up some saucy-classics he commented that when he was very ill with Covid, NHS nurses “pulled my chestnuts out of the Tartarean pit”. Tartarus was (apparently) the underworld abyss, beneath even hades. He quoted Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – for no obvious reason but a sort of strange literary flex – before tripping out lines about Jeremy Corbyn, lefty-lawyers, the culture wars and gags about ‘Build, Back Beaver” and “Build Back Burger”.
It was a familiar routine, and like his colleagues he was immune to the reality of social chaos they have created throughout the country they claim to rule. Their infliction of mass poverty and their presiding of the breakdown of supply chains was something they are blissfully ignorant of. Nor are this weeks revelations of the Pandora Papers anything to trouble the Tory regime. As Peter Oborne observes (‘Access to the Tory party is being bought by a new class of tycoon funders’): “Johnson’s Conservative party essentially belongs to the super-rich. The billionaires. Those with privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer. To the large and in many cases insalubrious cast of men and women with walk-on appearances in the Pandora papers scandal. This class of Conservatives does not seem to see the British state – as Tories have historically claimed to do – as something to which you dedicate a life of service. They seem to see it rather differently: as something to be plundered and used for self-enrichment.”
“Certainly Johnson supports levelling up. He wants to level up the billionaires. They’ve grown richer than ever before under his premiership. This may help explain why Tory donors are so much more likely to win Covid contracts than others. Access, it seems, helps win contracts, and access can come in return for a fat donation.”
It’s tempting to see all of this is as continuous. It’s tempting to see it all in just one long line of sleaze. But as Oborne points out the difference now is that – certainly for the Conservatives – there is no mass membership. The cash MUST come from other sources now. In this sense the demise of the political realm is in a downwards cycle. It is circling the drain.
Priti Patel and the Banning Orders
It’s not true that the conference was entirely policy free. It wasn’t all laughs and gaffs. Among all the partying the Home Secretary was stripping away your right to protest and destroying a very basic tenet of democracy.
The sweeping new powers are called “criminal disruption prevention orders”. A Conservative party source told the BBC that the orders would “give the courts the power to prevent an individual with a history of disruption or where there is intelligence suggesting they are likely to commit a criminal offence from attending particular protests”. They are “inspired” by Patel’s hatred of climate change protestors and are built on previous regressive legislation from earlier this year.
They are essentially ‘pre-crimes’ – dystopian sci-fi now mingling happily on your timeline and your newsfeed.
As Ian Dunn notes (‘Priti Patel’s revenge on Insulate Britain climate protesters is a dramatic curb on our democratic rights’) : “Patel didn’t pluck this idea from nowhere. It was first suggested in July 2019 by the Metropolitan Police, on behalf of the National Police Chiefs Council, when they presented 19 ideas to make it easier to police protests. At the time, they were called “protest banning orders”, but that was too on-the-nose. It gave the game away. That’s why the concept has now been repackaged under the euphemistic “criminal disruption prevention orders”.
Dunn observes: “Several senior police officers also rejected the idea. One said that it would “unnecessarily curtail people’s democratic right to protest”. Another warned that it would constitute “a massive civil liberty infringement”. A third said that “the proposal is a severe restriction on a person’s rights to protest”.
There was a moral queasiness in police circles at the way it seemed to take a legal provision applied to violent football fans and apply it to peaceful protestors. Football banning orders were parliament’s response to extreme, organised, often racially-motivated disorder in football grounds. Applying them in this completely different scenario – to climate change activists inconveniencing passers-by – takes a draconian measure which can be justified by the severity of the situation it addresses and then imposes it on one which does not.
One senior police officer decided that of all 19 proposals it was “the hardest of all the asks”. When appraising it in September 2020, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services reached the same conclusion. “A banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest,” it said. “It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk that an individual poses.”
The Insulate Britain protests have divided environmental protestors nd the Home Secretary is seizing the day to dust down proposals and implement her next line of attacks on civil liberties.
As Priti Patel flirted with conference fascism the rumours were that Laura Kuenssberg – the BBC’s best paid flunky – was doing Karaoke with Michael Gove. But did that happen? The story emerged from the twitter feed of Dominic Penna, a sort of premature Telegraph offspring:
Laura Kuenssberg and Michael Gove had a dance-off rap battle as one Tory MP sang Ice Ice Baby at karaoke last night.
Kuenssberg’s BBC colleague Lewis Goodall then gave Dancing Queen his best shot – after quipping: “Have we got any Tory scum in the audience?
The story did the rounds before being deleted and vehemently denied by the BBC News Press Team Twitter account.
Penna would later tweet a (sort of/not really) apology:
Party conferences pass in a blur. Contrary to my report from INHouse karaoke, Laura Kuenssberg did not have a dance-off and rap battle with Cabinet minister Michael Gove.
The BBC Political Editor was there, and chatting to people on the edge of the dance floor, with hundreds of other people. But no shapes were thrown with disco-loving Govey.
But the idea that the BBC’s most senior news journalist would have been drinking and partying with the politicians she’s supposed to be reporting on wasn’t denied, just the karaoke bit. This is where we are. We are in the grip of some of the most authoritarian government legislation we’ve ever experienced (and we’ve experienced a lot) and the coverage and scrutiny is lamentable.
As the excellent Mic Wright (Broken Bottle Boy on SubStack) notes: “The rap battle detail may be untrue but the sense of no barrier existing between the reporters who purport to tell us the truth about politicians and the politicians they analyse is not. The rap battle rumour reveals once again that The Daily Telegraph is a fanzine squatting in the hollowed-out corpse of a 166-year-old newspaper brand, but it also shows us how hacks are simultaneously comfortable and ashamed about how they make the sausage and galivant with the pigs. Of course, political reporters need to talk to politicians but they don’t have to socialise with them or treat them as friends. Unless, of course, they always have their eye on future jobs within government or the sprawling tentacled mass of think-tanks that produce most policy and provide a job creation scheme for some of the most odious people in Britain (if not the world).”
The House that Jack Built
And finally we turn to Alister Jack, a man who looks permanently disappointed, like the boy who finds the hamper empty at the Grouse Shoot or is always given the smallest pony for the Fox Hunt. This week the unfortunate Jack has been criticised for “an embarrassing lack of political awareness” and accused of rewriting the Good Friday Agreement after incorrectly suggesting a border poll on Irish reunification could only take place if 60% of people on the island wanted it, as he attempted to set down new conditions for a second independence referendum.
On Wednesday Jack attempted to add new conditions to his ever-moving set of criteria for when and why people in Scotland should be allowed to express their wish for self-governance. Jack said in August that Whitehall would grant another ballot on the Union if polls consistently showed that 60 per cent of voters supported one. He unexpectedly added further prerequisites this week, ruling out another referendum for at least 25 years, which he deemed to be a “generation”.
Jack had previously suggested that a generation could be “25 or 40 years”. But under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, any possible second border poll in Northern Ireland should be at least seven years after the first. The document says the Northern Ireland secretary can call a border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland”.
Having pegged our referendum to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement is a serious mistake from a man so out of his depth he is making it up as he goes along, and for whom every utterance is a catastrophic blunder of constitutional proportions. Manchester was a live advert for constitutional change – as the Tory Freak show and their media carnival partied like it was the End of Days. Let’s hope it is.
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