We are all fascinated by identical twins, whether amusing (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) or alarming (Ronnie and Reggie Kray). And what is true of one twin, we assume, must be true of the other. So it is with the Conservatives and Labour. The latter lurch to the left; the former roll to the right. The Tories are for the very rich, and no-one else much; Labour for the very poor, and ditto. The former are fanatics about the role of the market, the latter extremists about that of the state. Labour has a problem with Jews; the Tories with Muslims. And so on. The charge by the departing three MPs yesterday of a Conservative “shift to the right” will thus have fallen on many willing ears. It has a plausible neatness. We are suckers for parallelism.
But it is true? Let’s consider, as our first piece of evidence, Theresa May’s Twitter feed. “After the largest national survey of LGBT people in history, we’re taking action to ensure that the future for LGBT people is brighter than the past,” she says, in an item posted only yesterday. “Have your say,” declares the item below, “on ending the confusion over household recycling…on introducing a Deposit Return Scheme…on making producers foot the bill for handling their packaging waste”. “Care professionals are heroes, working hard every day to look after some of the most vulnerable people in our country,” the Prime Minister tells us shortly afterwards, as we scroll down the posted tweets.
Set aside the party political attacks on Labour and, whether you like all this or not, it is pretty much par for the course. Other items celebrate London Fashion Week, announce law-strenghtening on female genital mutilation, and tell us that “the degrading practice of upskirting has become a criminal offence”. (Take that, Christopher Chope!) More than ten million people have been auto-enrolled for a state pension; the NHS has received the biggest cash boost in its history; there is a big expansion of mental health services. On and on roll the announcements. If one can pick out a common theme, it is items pitched at women, no doubt to try to address the Tory weakness with younger female voters. Oh, and Happy Year of the Pig!
#YearofthePig. #CNY2019. #ChineseNewYear.
You may object to taking a Party Twitter feed as unquestionable political gospel. Or to accepting May’s own summary of her Government’s work last year, in which she listed the Space Industry Act, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Act, the Data Protection Act, the Financial Guidance and Claims Act, the Smart Meters Act, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act, the Ivory Act, the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act, the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse Act), the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act, and the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation Act) – all of which the departed three helped to vote into law, not objecting, as they tramped through the lobbies to support them, that these measures represented the “shift to the right” of which they complained yesterday.
At any rate, you are welcome to think through the matter with us. Where shall we start? How about with the economy? Austerity, whatever that means, went out with George Osborne – or at least if you insist on linking the term to eliminating the structural deficit, an aim which Philip Hammond junked long ago. If you don’t believe us, try the verdict on his last Budget of the Office of Budget Responsibility: the “largest discretionary fiscal loosening at any fiscal event since the creation of the OBR”. What about the public services? Over at health, the Conservatives have given up on structural Ken Clarke or Andrew-Lansley style reform. An alliance of left-of-Tory centre high spenders and Dominic Cummings-led Brexiteer Ministers are sloshing public money into the NHS’s gaping maw.
Then there is education, which this site is exploring this week. If Ministers divide into warriors and healers, then Damian Hinds is a healer, technocratically engaged with teacher workloads, T-levels, and character education. The current Conservative big education idea is Rob Halfon’s for exam reform…backed by the successor to the National Union of Teachers. Over at Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd is baling out Universal Credit, with a little help from the Treasury. James Brokenshire is a latter-day Oscar Wilde, in preoccupation if not quite in expression: he is deeply engaged with beauty, at least in architecture. Michael Gove is stamping on plastic bottles. David Gauke wants shorter prison sentences. Sajid Javid is immersed in cannabis oil.
Mention of Javid takes us to immigration – about which Anna Soubry, who must seldom have an unspoken thought these days, has an abiding fixation. The Home Secretary is mulling ending the cap on high-skilled immigration, ending the requirement on employers to advertise for workers in Britain before recruiting from overseas, and opening up a route for unskilled workers from “low risk” countries. It is quite something when both Soubry and Migration Watch are unhappy. But there you go. You can’t please everyone, as the Prime Minister now knows very well, or sometimes anyone at all – including your own MPs, especially if they represent Broxtowe, Totnes or South Cambridgeshire.
But Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen aren’t thinking of NHS spending or banning upskirting when they complain of a “shift to the right”. They aren’t taken up with teacher workloads or ivory bans, smart meters or LBGT, auto-enrollment or microbeads. No, they are consumed by a single subject: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit – about which these “moderates” are no less obsessed than, say, Bill Cash. The Government is struggling to achieve the end to which they also committed themselves – leaving the EU. Like their then fellow Tory MPs, they voted to move Article 50; they backed leaving at the 2017 election; they supported the Withdrawal Act in the lobbies. But anyone has the right to change their mind. Or the right, come to think of it, to change parties, including members of Parliament.
So if the group of three now wish to abandon their Associations, U-turn on commitments they previously made, and join a new group in the Commons, good luck to them. We should honour their record in going through the lobbies, night after night, to put in place the programme to which they now apparently object. But how can it be extremism to seek to honour the biggest electoral verdict in British political history – especially if one committed to do so oneself? As we say, twins compel attention. But don’t mistake dull, determined, dogged Theresa May, the woman who first conjured up the words “Nasty Party”, with IRA-excusing, Putin-appeasing, terror wreath-laying, Venezuela despot-friendly Jeremy Corbyn – the man who actually leads one.