Britain is now a land in which a Tory away day is seen as the panacea to years of abject government failure, writes Iain Overton
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In a few days’ time, the Prime Minister will offer his Conservative backbenchers the chance of an away day.
Perhaps the dinner budget will be set at 30p to set an example. They might serve up turnips. Or maybe Liz Truss will return to form and order a £153 bottle of Pazo Barrantes Albariño. There’s even a chance Therese Coffey, who believes people who can’t afford food should work harder, will end the day singing ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’.
What we do know is that Tory grandees will “get together, enjoy dinner and share ideas”.
Some would say that there’s nothing controversial in this. Team-building is a good thing. But the notion there are still ideas to be shared among Conservatives MPs is worth exploring. Not least because how they present themselves: a party that, after 12 years in power, is all about renewal.
The implication from our fourth Prime Minister in four years is this: an away day will provide solutions to the nation’s existential threats – and such threats have nothing to do with the Conservatives’ own poor governance. The sunny uplands are still calling if only a good idea could come along and evince the party’s manifest destiny.
Rishi Sunak’s pledge to disperse the “whiff of sleaze” in Downing Street were the words of the party in opposition, not one mired in a stench of its own making. But such framing of renewal is a deliberate tactic that, at its heart, relies upon a collective political amnesia.
Indeed, political amnesia is the only recourse the Conservatives now have. Forget our past failings, they ask us: these we disavow. What they demand of us is to forget.
To forget the Cash for Access scandal, where the party was accused of allowing wealthy donors to purchase direct access to senior politicians.
To forget the Windrush Scandal, where almost a hundred black British citizens were deported from the UK by the Home Office.
To forget the Grenfell Fire, in which 72 people died in one of the UK’s richest constituencies.
To forget the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the unnecessary deaths and procurement scandals and ‘Partygate’.
To forget Conservative MPs’ sexual misconduct.
To forget the tawdry lobbying efforts of former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill.
To forget that the Conservative Party’s former chairman Nadhim Zahawi paid a penalty of £1.3 million to HMRC for failing to pay capital gains tax.
To forget so much.
Even creating a hierarchy of which of these scandals was worse or better than others is a Siosphyan task. And this is before we have even talked about Brexit.
What we are being asked is this: to think of all these failures as another’s fault. It’s a framing that led the Conservative Party itself to tweet the outrageous claim that “where Labour are in control, crime is higher” – as if it has not been the Government in power since 2010. It is the strategy of amnesia.
Earlier this month, Sunak unveiled what was hailed as “a shake-up of Whitehall” – yet another ministerial churn that defines such gaming. Where secretaries of state in key government departments have served for an average of just 18 months; and where the average tenure has been just 15 months since 2015. Where there have been 14 different ministers for housing over the past 12 years.
Such constant churn spreads responsibility for government policies across endless forgettable Conservative MPs, making it difficult to identify the source of failure. Accountability is avoided with each fresh face in office. All failures are the faults of the past.
And swathes of the British press, rather than being a bulwark against such political malfeasance, give it credence. Those many media outlets that hold deep ties to the Conservative Party have led a culture of self-censorship more interested in protecting the status quo than reminding of the accumulation of loss.
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Let’s not forget that former Goldman Sachs executive and current BBC Chairman Richard Sharp helped arrange an £800,000 loan for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2020. He even personally donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party. And that’s just the BBC.
Such political amnesia is further aided by the impact of smartphones, whereby the constant distractions of news and cat videos impede our ability to accumulate notions of political responsibility. TikTok and Twitter act as the opiate of the masses; churn and scandal and promises and new faces make it difficult to encode information in memory. Where accountability is, in the end, left swiped or doom-rolled.
Terry Eagleton once argued that what was most damaging in modern politics in an age of late capitalism was “the absence of memories of collective, and effective, political action”. Conservatism, so aligned with capitalism, identifies naturally with the promises of that economic force – that the future is brighter if we just invest in it.
Renewal and forgetting lie at the heart of both political and economic systems.
So it was that when, earlier this month, the click-baiting Conservative MP Lee Anderson tweeted an image of Westminster voting intention with the words: “Up 3% in one week is a massive step in the right direction. If we hold our nerve and keep to the PM’s five-point plan. Deliver this and we deliver victory at the next election.” What he was asking of us was not to look at the scandals after scandals after scandals that filled the image – but to place victory ahead of everything else. His promise is the future over memory. Power over principle.
Gore Vidal once lamented of the United States that “we learn nothing because we remember nothing”. The Conservative Party has transformed this lamentation in Britain into political art. Where ministerial churn, forever-scandal and the persistent support of a right-leaning media has created a landscape of persistent amnesia.
It has created a country where political accountability is forgotten before it is even lamented. A land where an away day is seen as the panacea to years of abject government failure.
The Time of Their Lives is always tomorrow.
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