Show Hide image

I’m jumpy enough when the phone rings in the day, so when I get a call late at night . . .

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Half past 11 at night and I am thinking of turning in early for once when the phone rings. I am jumpy enough when the phone rings during the day, so at this time of night it is positively nerve-jangling. But the name displayed on the screen is that of an ex-girlfriend of so long ago – we’re talking the first Thatcher administration here – that we can’t even agree on which of us gave the other one the boot. Even though we disagree on just about everything, from whether the Daily Mail is a newspaper or not to fun ways to spend a weekend, there is a residual sentiment there that makes us very fond of each other.

I’d last got a communication from her late in the evening about a week before; she’d asked me to be on standby while she participated in the village pub quiz. I sternly told her that I do not approve of cheating in pub quizzes, which must have given her the hump, as some time after closing I got a rather garbled text in which she sarcastically said thanks and also that she’d been beaten up. “Shit, seriously?” I replied. “No,” she texted back, mortified; she meant beaten – in the quiz.

Savage planet

Incident closed, I thought. So when I answered her call and she said that she’d had a row with her – can you call a man in his fifties this? – boyfriend and asked if she could come over, I said, “Yes, of course.”

I have heard much of this man over the past year and a half or so. None of it is good and I assure you this is not the proprietorial air of a man who thinks that his exes are worthy of no one but him. No, it’s because he sounds to me like a bullying, mean shit who disappears off to “do business” of an unexplained nature in Russia more often than looks good. Never mind, though, that’s not my business. And, after all, I tend to get called more when things are going badly than when they are going well. I only hear about the bad times.

What became clear, though, during the course of the debriefing session with my friend when she arrived half an hour later, was that it turns out he has, on about four or five occasions, maybe more, beaten her up. Her slip of the fingers in her text message from the week before was no accident.

I will leave the details obscure, except that the violence, as described, sounded frenzied and dangerous, with her at one point fearing for her life. She showed me her forehead where he had slammed her head against the door a week earlier; the bump was still palpable. How long, do you know, does it take for a bump to go down? I would have thought that one that lasted a week must have been rather impressive to begin with.

I must say, I really don’t get it, this womanhitting business. She was so impressed by the quality and strength of the violence against her that she wondered whether he’d had professional training of some sort but I assured her that she would be amazed by the intuitive manner in which men can become masters of savagery against someone of the opposite gender who is much, much smaller than them.

However, I only know this at one remove. There are only two people I can think of who deserve a thrashing that I would be happy to administer but they are both men and live at Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, London SW1. Even then, it would be done more in sorrow than anger. Hit a woman, though? I can only imagine that for the men who do it, their very weakness must be some kind of provocation. This might be one reason they do it again and again.

Fearing the worst

So I went through my spiel, honed after listening to the experience of another good friend who had suffered the same, that she must never go back to him under any circumstances, for otherwise it will happen again and the next time the consequences may be worse than a bump on the head. She assured me that she’d do this. “But please,” she said, “don’t mention this to anyone.” She was “embarrassed”.

I suppose I am breaching her trust by writing about it here, even though she is unidentifiable. However, she now tells me that she has gone back to him and I brace myself for further worse news. It is the shame that women feel when evil has been done to them that I find the most perplexing, yet at the same time it is one of the reasons the violence persists, that the men get away with it. I hear that one in four women suffer from violence at some point. This must mean that one in four men are perpetrating it. Sometimes, you just want to throw up.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide