Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Stop being so yellow, or play-it-safe Tories may turn Britain red


THE Tories have taken a hit in the polls and one has to conclude that they deserve it. Their play-it-safe campaign is hardly the sort of stuff that spurs voters to turn out for them. Boris Johnson is on a tight leash and in the interviews and debates he does attend, he sticks stolidly to his script. 

Even more distasteful is the sidelining of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose treatment smacks of political cowardice and disloyalty. He is still noticeably absent from the main campaign. It seems that following the furore created by his Grenfell fire comments, Tory headquarters have deemed it best to banish him to Somerset. In a recent LBC interview, Boris refused to be drawn on whether JRM would be invited back into the Cabinet fold in the event of a Conservative victory.

The whole Conservative reaction to the Rees-Mogg controversy has been one of pathetic submission to popular hysteria. It is worthwhile reconsidering his comments and challenging the popular – and worst possible – interpretation of what he said.

On LBC radio he was asked if race had anything to do with the Grenfell fire tragedy. He rejected the notion and said: ‘It seems to me that that is the tragedy of it, that the more one’s read of it over the weekend about the report and about the chances of people surviving, if you just ignore what you’re told and leave, you are so much safer.’ That is true. The Grenfell fire report says as much.

Rees-Mogg continued: ‘I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do and it is such a tragedy that that didn’t happen.’

All hell broke loose. JRM was accused of blaming fire victims for lacking common sense and not saving themselves. It was agreed that the comments demonstrated just how out of touch he is.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw, but not necessarily the right one. If common sense is that instinctive sound judgment in practical matters, leaving a burning building does indeed seem the common sense course of action. It’s why animals instinctively flee fire.

At other times, the optimal act is counter-intuitive and we do well to act against common sense. For this reason we may defer decisions to authority figures, such as fire officials who tell us to stay put. The report concludes this happened in the Grenfell fire and contributed to the scale of the tragedy.

Perhaps that is what JRM meant. His clarificatory comments that he would also have listened to the fire officials suggest so. It is anyhow a more charitable, and no less credible, interpretation than the popular belief that he blames victims’ fates on their lack of intelligence.

Haters of JRM have waited a long time to take him out. They despise the way he dresses, the way he speaks and his political and religious beliefs. Famously hard to provoke, he dismantles his opponents’ arguments and presents his case with unfailing politeness and charm. 

These qualities, along with his sharp mind and encyclopaedic knowledge of Parliament, make him an asset to his party, whether as a backbencher or as Leader of the House. So it was particularly repulsive to watch his own party take the easy road: Join in the attack and force him to apologise.

Siding with popular opinion against their own allies is nothing new to the Conservatives. Earlier this year, the philosopher Roger Scruton was fired from his job in government after the New Statesman ran a libellous hit-piece demonising him. Party leaders did not wait for George Eaton’s article to be discredited, they distanced themselves from Scruton as fast as possible.

Boris Johnson’s election as leader signalled hope that the Conservative Party had found a new backbone. The grassroots support for Johnson, who came with his own share of potentially embarrassing comments, showed an appetite for someone who was going to stick up for Conservative members and values.

At first, Boris rose to the challenge. He went on the offensive in the Commons and refused to tone down his language. His Cabinet was stocked with Brexiteers and detractors were fired. The message was clear: New management was in town and had the stomach for a fight.

Sadly, the Conservative campaign seems to have lost some of that oomph. Those of us who enjoyed Johnson’s wit and tendency to go gloriously off piste in interviews have been bitterly disappointed by his lacklustre approach in media appearances. 

Like his predecessor, he sticks to his mantra: Chanting Get Brexit done over and over; perhaps trying to convince himself that his deal will achieve that. It might make things easier for the spin doctors, but it does nothing for the voters.

The Conservatives need to realise the time for safe politics, if there ever was one, is over. Central to the election is Brexit, the most daring political enterprise in a generation. Leading the opposition is a radical socialist. 

To successfully grapple with both, the Conservatives must be bold and audacious. Abandoning senior members and forcing them to apologise in the face of politically-motivated controversy fails to do this. 

Hopefully, the dip in the polls will prompt the Tories to change tack; stop playing safely by the rules of speech set by the PC brigade, bring back Jacob Rees-Mogg and give conservatives a party they can vote for.

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Angus Milne
Angus Milne
Angus Milne is an English teacher and writer from the west of England

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