The internet won't forget Cameron's lies, and neither will the British people

If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend

The throne was golden and the lectern was golden and the speech was very clear: austerity will not be temporary policy in Tory Britain. It will last forever. Addressing a roomful of diplomats and business leaders who had just dined lavishly at the Lord Mayor's banquet, the Prime Minister this week promised a "leaner, more efficient state". "We need to do more with less," said David Cameron, looking comfy in his white tie and tails. "Not just now, but permanently."

But he hadn't counted on Ruth Hardy, a journalism student, who was working as a waitress that night. "The contrast of the two worlds was striking; someone said it was like a scene from Downton Abbey," wrote Hardy in a viral piece for the Guardian. "Maybe Cameron didn't see the irony; perhaps he forgot about the army of waiting staff, cleaners, chefs and porters who were also present at the banquet. Perhaps he thought he was in a room of similarly rich people, who understood the necessity for austerity. Perhaps it didn't occur to him that this message might not be as easily comprehended by those who hadn't just enjoyed a four-course meal. Perhaps he forgot about those of us, disabled or unemployed or on the minimum wage, for whom austerity has had a catastrophic and wounding effect."

The decimation of higher education funding was one of the first cuts the coalition imposed, in direct violation of their election promises, after taking office in 2010. Undergraduates are now facing tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and it is likely that the Prime Minister will find many more disgruntled students serving him dinner before he leaves office. Of the many kinds of revenge angry waiting staff can take, a Guardian article strikes me as amongst the most considerate.

We are no longer living in an era where power is permitted to speak only to itself without pushback. It is significant that the speech in which Cameron chose to announce permanent austerity - a clear contradiction of his earlier position that his party "didn't come into politics to make cuts" - was delivered not to parliament, or to a press conference, but to the guests at the Lord Mayor's banquet. Business leaders, captains of industry and diplomats - unelected power and privilege at its most scoffingly self-congratulatory.

The Lord Mayor's banquet is the date in the calendar of the City of London when the Prime Minister is invited to tell the well-fed business community how wonderful they are. The press and public are allowed to know what goes on, but we're expected to show proper British deference. Cameron really shines at this. There are many points on which the former PR man falls down but when it comes to stuffing a tailcoat and telling big business what it wants to hear, Call Me Dave really comes into his own.

The next day, the world found out that the Cameron government hasn't just lied for years about its true intentions- it has attempted to delete the evidence of those lies from the internet. Ten years of speeches and press releases about how the new Tories were all about modernising conservatism, how they cared about the environment, the NHS, the poor. All gone. Not just from the Conservatives' website and YouTube page, but from the Internet Archive, the world's digital library. As Mark Ballard commented at Computer Weekly:

Conservatives posted a robot blocker on their website, which told search engines and the Internet Archive they were no longer permitted to keep a record of the Conservative Party web archive...The erasure had the effect of hiding Conservative speeches in a secretive corner of the internet like those that shelter the military, secret services, gangsters and paedophiles.

Cory Doctorow reminds us at Boing Boing that now-deleted WebCameron videos were...

...launched by the Tories in 2006 with great fanfare and were billed as a way for the public to see a more natural image of the then-leader of the opposition ... The message of transparency was echoed in one of the speeches now removed from the party's website. George Osborne said in 2007: "We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible – and so bridge the gap between government and governed."

Well, that bridge just got burned. The gap between the government and the governed, the gap between rulers and ruled, has not been so stark in a generation. The Prime Minister puts on a tailcoat, dines on fillet of beef and "a celebration of British mushrooms" and announces that he has lied to the public for three years. He has lied to them before, during and after the election at which he promised to be the most "transparent" leader ever, lied in a way that will make this country a harder, meaner, more unequal place to live for generations, and he expects not only to stay in power, but to finish his tasting plate of patriotic fungus first.

This is no longer the Nanny State. Labour may have treated us like children, but the Tories treat us like animals, like dull penned beasts bred out of every brain cell and trained not to stampede. And the Liberal Democrats?

There is unlimited space for discussion online, and I still refuse to waste a paragraph on the Liberal Democrats. Here, instead, is a video of a weasel playing on a duvet.

It is distracting and will make you feel very briefly better, so it serves roughly the same political function.

Accusing Conservative politicians of cowardice is not technically illegal yet. We know this because a recent attempt to prosecute a university lecturer for doing just that was overturned this week. I can therefore state with only very slight fear of arrest that I believe the Conservative party in government and their pusillanimous coalition partners to be cowards of the worst order. They are the sort of craven invertebrates who will wait three years before even beginning to be honest about their intentions and then try to destroy uncomfortable evidence that they ever said anything different. They are the kind of petty tyrants who will wave around the threat of a D-notice when a newspaper insists on publishing details of its gross surveillance programme. They are the type of cowards who insist on their right to scrutinise, track and spy on activists, protesters and ordinary citizens, then kick into a censorship fit when they are scrutinised in turn.

No. The Conservatives do not get to send ten years of lies down the memory hole. They do not get to erase the commitments to green investment, to healthcare spending, to fairness, tolerance and transparency without pushback. They do not get to pretend that they weren't pretending austerity would be temporary, would be bearable. They do not get to claim that this world of hopelessness, poverty and plummeting living standards is what anybody voted for three years ago.

They do not get to stab us in the back and call it a shoulder rub.

This is not the 1980s. History cannot simply be rewritten. If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend they can't hear your lies. This is not Downton Abbey. The student pouring out the Burgundy for you to raise a toast to permanent spending cuts has a laptop and an opinion.

We have not always been at war with Eastasia.

Just because the government has retracted its tepid commitment to transparency, just because the Tories have tried to destroy evidence of their own deceit, doesn't mean we can't keep track of what they're doing. The internet does not forget hypocrisy, and neither will a nation that's sick of politicians lying flagrantly and in public over and over again. The Prime Minister had better enjoy those posh mushrooms while they last.


Now listen to the team discussing why and how the Conservatives have tried to erase their pre-2010 pledges on the NS Podcast:

David Cameron at the Lord Mayor's Banquet. Photo: Getty

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.