Huzzah! Raise a glass of Bollinger to the Conservatives.
They’ve succeeded in achieving what the left has long failed to do: resurrecting class politics in Britain.
Back in March, a ComRes poll for The Independent revealed that two out of three voters regarded the Tories as the party of the rich, including many Conservative voters. The upper echelons of the party appear to be conspiring to reinforce that image at every opportunity. If Andrew Mitchell was a young black man in Hackney who had lashed out at the police, he would undoubtedly have been arrested; but so brazenly asserting his place at the top of the British class system with the term “pleb” sums up a widely held view of Toryism. George Osborne’s reluctance to breathe the same air on a train as the unwashed masses – who already provided valuable feedback about his economic policies at the Paralympics – in standard class simply reinforces the point.
Operation “Get Cameron” is clearly in full-swing, and an alliance of right-wing MPs, bloggers and newspapers are implicated. “Who do they think they are?” bellows the Daily Mail, and it was Tory backbenchers who booted out Andrew Mitchell, in defiance of Cameron’s will. “We’ve got a first-class leader at the moment,” Theresa May said yesterday, hardly a vote of confidence in Cameron’s long-term prospects.
Before May 2010, the script appeared written for Cameron. Here was a charismatic, modernising Tory leader who hugged huskies and hoodies and would storm to victory. It never happened. Cameron is a proven loser. If he could not win in 2010 – against a Labour Government and economy that were both in meltdown – it is difficult to see how round two will be any better. “Four numbers should haunt every Tory,” leading Tory pundit Tim Montgomerie wrote earlier this year, “31, 32, 32, and 36 – the percentage of the vote that the party won at the last four elections.”
And so a new script is being written, involving Cameron’s former schoolmate, Boris Johnson. Perhaps the prospects of Cameron being deposed in favour of the occupant of City Hall seem absurd, not least because of the logistics: Johnson does not have a Parliamentary seat. But the Conservatives are the most successful political force on Earth for good reason: they are ruthless, not least at deposing unpopular leaders. As the Government writhes on the floor, haemorrhaging authority, Johnson has become the unchallenged Tory pretender to Cameron’s crown. In theory, Johnson seems like the worst possible answer to the Tory meltdown. According to YouGov, the Tories’ crisis stems from a widespread rejection by working-class voters – 43 per cent of those defined by the polling agency as being middle-class think Cameron is doing a good job, compared with only 29 per cent of those classed as working-class.
Less than a quarter of Northerners now support the Tories. It’s a far cry from the 1950s, when more than half of Scots voted Tory, and large parts of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Yorkshire were painted blue. If the Tories are regarded as the political arm of the wealthy, replacing one Old Etonian with another seems like a poor solution. And indeed many of the pundits fuelling Boris-mania have never canvassed opinion on a Northern council estate. Polls suggest the Tories would win barely any more votes in the North if Boris became leader, and in Scotland support would plummet even further.
But remember the absurd Tory leader who wore silly hats and ranted at her opponents in a squeaky voice? Or the ageing Hollywood actor-turned Republican US Presidential candidate, rejected for having dangerous right-wing views only matched by a lack of intellect? Or the cowboy from Texas who could barely string a sentence together?
Alas, this was indeed how their opponents saw Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush in their day. But none were losers: all were devastatingly effective at introducing radical policies and hammering their opponents.
In short, there is a history of apparently laughable right-wing figureheads being woefully underestimated with tragic consequences.
Which is why Boris scares me. He is the best salesman for right-wing populism that Britain has. He is Norman Tebbit with a blond mop, cheery grin and a witty punchline. In contrast to Cameron – whose jugular vein appears worryingly close to bursting with every Prime Minister’s Question – Boris offers a sunny British Reaganism, or a “Ready brek glow of happiness”, as he puts it.
And have no doubt: he is a sophisticated political lobbyist for the wealthy. He has championed the bankers, demanding that politicians “stop slagging off” the City. He repeatedly railed against the 50p tax – which even most Tory voters supported – claiming that “highly educated, aspirational staff” would flee. He has now demanded that the top rate be slashed even further, back to 40 per cent. In July, he floated the privatisation of large chunks of the Metropolitan Police. His rants against the EU are constant cheer for the Tory Right. Rupert Murdoch may now be a pariah for most of the political establishment, but Boris invited him as guest of honour to the Olympics – and the mogul is rumoured to be toying with endorsing him.
Overall, polls point to Boris providing a Tory boost which at the very least could deprive Labour of a majority at the next election.
It is difficult not to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude as Cameron’s cabal looks increasingly like late-stage John Major or even Gordon Brown. But remember: the Tories have no intention of allowing Ed Miliband to march into No 10. If Cameron is still turning crimson as his Government continues to slide in a year’s time, the men in suits may come for him. And they have just the man to take his place – a man who may yet wipe the smirk off our faces.