And I'm not making this up...

Instead of pandering to tabloid mythology why can't May, Cameron and co just be honest?

Sometimes I like to think of a world in which everything that's said at the Conservative Party conference is true. Imagine that world, for a moment. It's a world where rich people are nice, and businesses are trying their hardest to make the world a better place but are constantly thwarted by pesky red tape.

It's a world where the poor are grasping and bad, and people who aren't doing very well have ended up there by not trying hard enough and not getting on their bikes.

It's also a world where political correctness has gone mad. But you can't even say mad nowadays, you have to say "mindfully challenged" because otherwise the Brussels bureaucrats, and I'm not making this up, won't be able to deport racists back to where they came from because of their so-called human rights, and I saw someone had to wear safety goggles to open a packet of Murray Mints, it was in the papers and everything.

No, I'm getting confused. That was just a silly caricature of things that might be said at the Conservative Party conference; it wasn't what was actually said. However, even though that isn't quite accurate, it's close enough, isn't it? I mean, who cares what actually happened, when you can just tell a story that's got some kind of basis in fact, even if it's not exactly what happened?

When challenged about it, you can get your mates in the press to tell their readers that you're right; and it's not as if anyone on your side cares or not whether you're telling them the truth, as long as it neatly chimes in with their prejudices and expectations.

Well, that's not entirely true either, though. Because not all Tories roared with approval when Theresa May told her since-discredited shaggy moggy tale about a cat that kept someone in the country who shouldn't have been in the country, and how that showed why the Human Rights Act should be consigned Mary Bale-style to the wheelie bin.

Kenneth Clarke, the only Tory it's all right to be fond of if you're a leftie (although if we were allowed dead ones, I'd put Kenny Everett in there) thought it cheapened the debate to mention something that wasn't fundamentally accurate.

Later that same conference, David Cameron came up with a tale about health and safety having literally gone mad when a school tried to order highlighter pens, concocting a daft image of kids having to put on chemical protection suits and stand behind a blast shield just to use them. Was that true? It might have been, I suppose, but it's this kind of anecdotal justification for important policy -- the scrapping of the human rights act here, the relaxation of health and safety regulation there -- that cheapens our political life.

This kind of pandering to tabloid mythology is reminiscent of the black man Cameron met before the election campaign in 2010 who had apparently told him what he wanted to hear about immigration. But we only ever hear anecdotes from people he's spoken to that back him up; he doesn't talk much about the doctor he met, who told him to sod off out of his hospital, does he?

Who knows. Maybe there is a school somewhere that keeps highlighter pens in a safe, because they're so scared of the H&S brigade. Maybe there's a rush of illegal immigrants heading down the pet shop in the belief that it'll prevent their rightful deportation. Maybe some of these anecdotes are true, or grounded in truth. But even if they are, is that justification enough to change things? How about looking beyond the anecdotes, and beyond the farcical exceptions to the rule, and wondering why these bits of legislation are around in the first place?

Why not just be honest? If you don't like the Human Rights Act because you think it gives people too many human rights, then say so. Don't say it's stopping judges from deporting people because they've got cats when it hasn't stopped judges deporting people because they've got cats; that makes you seem childish and the reasons for your lawmaking flimsy.

If you don't like health and safety legislation because it means businesses are annoyed at having to spend money on safeguarding their employees -- and let's face it, if a few manual workers get horribly mutilated or killed, they weren't going to vote Tory anyway -- then don't be shy. Why use these daft anecdotes to get the point across?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.