They came to genuflect before the clown king and he didn’t disappoint

There are somewhere in the region of 364-and-a-half days a year when government by columnist is a bad idea, but when the hour comes, you might as well try to enjoy it

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Wednesday 06 October 2021 17:39
Boris Johnson launches tirade against Keir Starmer at Conservative conference
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They came to genuflect before the clown king and they were not disappointed. The tired old act has been worked back up to a state of high polish. There were even, for the multiple returning customers to the oldest show in town, some actual new gags. And some of them were good.

There are somewhere in the region of 364-and-a-half days a year when government by columnist is a bad idea, but when the hour comes – or more accurately the half-hour – you might as well try to enjoy it.

And they certainly did enjoy it. They loved it. It was a homecoming of sorts. Surely they know, by now, that the big man can’t do it away from home. Idle gags about Kermit the Frog don’t land at the UN – not in front of the rest of the western world, which quite rightly regards you as a danger. But here, on his home pitch, where he’s not been allowed to play for a whole two years, he was crackling with the thrill of it all.

All week in Manchester they’ve been studiously ignoring the little people’s problems, but now they just melted away. There has, for the Kool Aid-swerving contingent, been a sense of rumbling dystopian dread about – dread that everyone inside this weird hermetically sealed bubble thinks everything is great, while those outside are terrified about how much it’s going to cost them to heat their homes over the winter, are still struggling to buy petrol, and quite a lot of them are now panic-buying biscuits for Christmas.

At the very moment Johnson bounded into his own vanity chamber in Manchester, UK gas futures were rising by 40 per cent. Gas futures, by the way, are the price that energy companies can buy gas at now, to insure themselves against even higher prices later. So it’s not even the price that’s soaring: it’s the insurance against the price soaring that’s soaring. They’re clamouring to buy it for 40 per cent more now, rather than pay even more later.

As it happens, a woman who is the public affairs director for a renewable energy company came to the Tory party conference, not to genuflect to the clown king, but to talk about this very immediate crisis, and found herself being assaulted at the official hotel bar.

Two Windrush campaigners also came, not to genuflect in front of the clown king, but to network, and to drum up support for their cause, as countless people with causes just like theirs do every year. They were stalked around the conference centre by operatives from No 10 before being thrown out and having their £225 passes revoked, with the Conservative Party too cowardly to provide any explanation for this.

If Johnson was troubled by the inconvenient reality of having to give his speech on the morning he had ended the universal credit uplift – to the disgust of what are ordinarily considered to be the most right-wing people in his party – he didn’t show it. His work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey also did a grand job of concealing her discomfort by doing karaoke in a grim strip-lit room with carpet tiles, belting out “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” while counting down the seconds to the moment at which 5 million people would have a grand a year lifted from their pockets – the start of a new, grinding, impossible life, lived below the bare minimum needed to get by.

But this is why they love Johnson so much. It’s pure escapism. The problems they’ve caused, the whirlwind they’ve sown with their own two-bit nationalism, are too profound to contemplate. What they need is a bit more two-bit nationalism; some quarter-baked aphorisms for their half-baked ideas.

And they got plenty of that. Johnson couldn’t bring himself to talk, directly, about the arrow-shower of crises that are raining down on everybody. But he did have some indirect answers. “The answer,” he said, “is not to allow uncontrolled immigration, but to control immigration.” They clapped like mad, and well they might. Clapping is a lot easier than considering that they’ve just tried a bit of controlled immigration. They tried to issue temporary visas to deal with the 100,000-strong HGV driver shortage. Twenty-seven people applied.

“It is our duty as Conservatives to promote opportunity with every tool we have,” he said. They went mad for that, too, even if promoting opportunity is, quite possibly, not achieved by taking away crucial, indispensable income from the people who have precious little opportunity without it.

He sang the praises of Brampton Manor Academy, a now famous school in Stratford, full of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, which sends more 18-year-olds to Oxbridge per year than does Eton. Although the vast majority of its students arrive from a very wide area indeed, and only to attend the highly selective sixth-form college. It is a fine school, but it is not the gleaming advert for social mobility that Johnson and Co want it to be.

But these are mere details, which they don’t want to have to worry about. What they want is a narrative. What they want, more than anything, is several paragraphs that move with real fluidity from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, through regional inequality and the housing crisis, to nimbyism – like a very good newspaper column that sounds like it might have an idea, somewhere in it, about how to actually sort anything out, but in fact very obviously doesn’t.

And more to the point, they know they can’t be seen to be worrying about it. Now that “Project Fear” has become the reality it was always destined to, it has been successfully rebadged as, actually, a desirable outcome of Brexit, and anyone who might have called this out for the very obvious bullsh*t it is was purged from the party long ago.

Boris Johnson jokes about the number of children Jacob Rees-Mogg has during Tory conference

(Well, not quite everyone. Liz Truss campaigned against all this, of course, and saw through all of it. But at some point, in late 2016, she looked at herself in the mirror for a very long time and had to decide what was more important: everybody else’s little lives, or her career. Thankfully, for her at least, she came to the right decision.

If she hadn’t have done so, then, well, the world would currently be having to live without selfies of her getting flash-mobbed by young Tories at egregious fringe discos – the very vaguely cool kid, bossing the dweebocracy. If there is a small part of her that looks a tiny bit awkward being surrounded by these entirely unhinged people, it’s theoretically possible that it might be because, when she was their age, she was a Lib Dem. That mirror has seen a lot of action down the years.)

But mainly everyone. All this hell is a transition to the “high-wage, high-skilled” economy. The reason there’s no lorry drivers, no abbatoir workers and – genuinely – no petrol, is just one of those bumps in the road. That is the big sell – the big idea.

Boring stuff, like higher wages not counting for very much if everything you need to buy with those wages has also got more expensive, is the sort of tedious gloomster detail that Johnson could really do without. And paying people more to do low-skilled work doesn’t make it high-skilled; and if it just makes prices go up, then the higher wages you’ve given them doesn’t help them. But that, too, is not what the party wants to hear.

At the heart of all the triumphialism is a simple fact. At the Labour Party conference last week, both Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves said that they would deal with the HGV shortage by issuing visas to 100,000 foreign workers because, as Reeves said, “People don’t care about the nationality of the people driving their petrol tanker; they just want to be able to get to work.”

The Tories don’t agree. They think that people really do care. That they really would rather have no petrol at all than have it delivered by a foreigner. And the maddest thing of all is that they might be right. They think they’ll be able to fight the next election on their promise of “higher wages” versus Labour’s promise of “more immigration”, and that’s why they’re cock-a-hoop.

Whether they’re right, well, who knows. There are one or two warning signs flashing, however. There have been moments during this week in Manchester when Johnson hasn’t been able to reach for the levers of levity. Cornered, several times, by several interviewers, on the imminent horror of 120,000 pigs about to be incinerated in fields instead of slaughtered in abbatoirs, he tried to say, several times, that it was the same thing. It isn’t, and he knows it.

And this, really, is where the risk lies. The public have been around Johnson for quite a while now. Everyone in the Tory party seems to reckon he’ll be around for most of a decade more, and they aren’t giving much consideration to the fact that, on a human level, nobody ever likes Boris Johnson for that long.

That’s why he is one of perhaps just a handful of men in the country to have ended up with more families than friends. They’re pinning their hopes on a very high opinion of Boris Johnson and a very low opinion of everybody else. They’d better hope they’re right, but there are a (still unconfirmed) number of children who might just tell you that it doesn’t always work out that way.

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