Why is Rishi Sunak in thrall to the industrial-strength controversy generator Lee Anderson?

The Tories’ best hope with regard to Anderson is that no one could ever possibly take him seriously; yet Sunak has decided, of his own free will, to escalate the seriousness with which his every half-baked utterance is treated

Tom Peck
Thursday 09 February 2023 17:43 GMT
Lee Anderson: Tory deputy chair defends support for death penalty's return

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak was standing right next to Volodymyr Zelensky and right in front of a very large tank, and staring out at the banks of television cameras in a state of utter triumph.

On Thursday, he was having to explain that no, he does not support the return of the death penalty. He was having to do this because earlier in the week, he had made Lee Anderson MP the deputy chair of the Conservative Party, a decision that is hard to tell if he already regrets because he must certainly have known precisely what would happen. And it’s taken a matter of hours.

Lee Anderson is an industrial-strength controversy generator who makes himself and his party look ridiculous on an almost 24-hour basis. He has already established himself as a kind of red-wall Mark Francois, a man for whom all problems have solutions as simple as he is. The Tories’ best hope with regard to Lee Anderson is that no one could ever possibly take him seriously, yet Sunak has decided, of his own free will, to escalate the seriousness with which his every half-baked utterance is treated.

It is, in short, entirely Rishi Sunak’s fault that there is currently not a news outlet anywhere in the country that does not feature prominently the news that the Tory deputy party chair supports the return of the death penalty.

“Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed,” he has said in an interview with The Spectator. “You know that, don’t you? 100 per cent success rate.”

He is, in a sense, right. Though the problem is that, everywhere the death penalty has ever been in place, there have been significant numbers of cases in which nobody had committed a crime before being executed either.

That, combined with a general sense that the death penalty is the hallmark of a brutal, uncivilised society, is why neither Rishi Sunak, nor any prime minister before him in more than half a century, has ever wanted to bring it back.

It is always argued that the public is in favour of the death penalty, yet no governing party would ever acquiesce to their demands. So it is, on the face of it, rather dim politics for the deputy chair of a party to make the prime minister have to publicly disown the idea of ever doing it.

Anderson’s day was not done there, however. He has also had a 12-minute interview with Verity Cowley of BBC Radio Nottingham, which the station has now played in full, where the great man is truly at his rhetorical best. Cowley had the temerity to ask him about the notorious 2019 moment in which he got a mate of his to pretend to be a floating voter-turned-Lee-Anderson-fan on a door-knocking session with Channel 4 News, and whether the incident suggests he is “dishonest”.

“Have you ever told a lie, Verity?” he replies. “Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever told a lie, yes or no?” In the face of such preposterously dim questioning, she eventually manages to say that “sometimes people tell ‘false truths’ for lots of reasons, for example, to protect people”.

This, Anderson decides, is all he needs: “So you’re a liar then. We’ve established that. We’ve established that you’re dishonest, haven’t we.”

It is, in one sense, a thrill to hear this kind of bulletproof logic actually broadcast on public radio, given it is so rarely heard anywhere other than the school playground, at the climactic moment of a long-running round of smelt-it-dealt-it.

So carefully honed was it that we may also have to assume Anderson has tried it before. There is, after all, almost no situation in which it would not work.

“Mr Anderson, I’ve just seen you throw a little boy down that well.”

“Have you got kids of your own, have you? Have you? Ever lost your temper with them? Ever shouted at them? Oh you have? Oh right. Well there you go then. I’m right and you’re wrong.”

The most tragic aspect is that Lee Anderson should be an asset for Rishi Sunak, not the party’s single greatest liability. He was a Labour councillor until a year before his election. He left for all of the same reasons half the voters in the so-called “red wall” did. He’s extremely right-wing on most social issues, as an extremely large number of traditional Labour voters are, though a lot of Labour people pretend not to think too much about all that.

He also speaks in his Spectator interview about bringing up two boys on his own for 17 years, about putting his last fiver in the gas meter, and having to sell his car because he can’t afford to run it. He volunteers at his local food bank and his outspoken comments on the subject are not as stupid as they have been caricatured to be. I have even heard it said that when desperate constituents have been to see him, he has, on occasion, reached into his own wallet to help them.

All of this is far more interesting than the absurd call to bring back the death penalty, and the berating of a journalist for the outrageous crime of asking him questions he doesn’t want to be asked.

He also said that, in politics: “Half the population will hate you, whatever colour you wear.” But this absolutely is not true, and the problem for Rishi Sunak is that his new deputy chair doesn’t seem to have worked out that the entire point of politics is to whittle that number in the “hate” column down, not go out of your way to pile it as high as you possibly can.

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