I write this column as a passionate moderate – an erstwhile Tory voter who deeply distrusts the intolerant, uncompromising ideologues of both left and right.
I address it to the Conservatives of North Shropshire who are mostly, I suspect, decent, honest, caring traditionalists who would have felt a much greater affinity with purged centrists such as Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart or Nicholas Soames than with the “ultras” who hold sway in their party now.
My message, my earnest appeal, is this. If you really care about the Conservative Party, vote for the Liberal Democrat, Helen Morgan, in the by-election on Thursday 16 December, not for the Tory candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst. Do so not because your previous MP, Owen Paterson, turned out to be working as much for his private sector paymasters as his constituents. Do so because that is the best route to removing a Prime Minister who has hijacked and is destroying your party.
I realise that North Shropshire has returned a Tory MP in every election since the constituency was created in 1832, but ask yourselves this: does Boris Johnson’s Conservative government bear any resemblance to those that have gone before? Is it even worthy of the name?
Johnson has debased politics and standards in public life. He routinely lies. He subverts the honours system to reward cronies. He protects loyalists who bully, flout Covid rules or twist planning regulations to help billionaire supporters. He disdains the parliament whose sovereignty he boasts of restoring. He seeks to limit the right of ordinary people to protest or vote. He presides over a government that hands out lucrative Covid contracts to allies, channels taxpayers’ money to marginal Tory constituencies, and is in hock to shady foreign donors. He accepts free luxury holidays, and a flat refurbishment costing more than most people’s annual salaries. He refuses to be held accountable, shirks any responsibility for his actions, and lacks any apparent sense of honour or shame.
The Conservatives used to be the party of law and order, but Johnson’s regime routinely displays contempt for the law. It holds secret Christmas parties while banning them for everyone else. It signs the Brexit withdrawal deal then seeks to renege on it within a year. It unlawfully prorogues parliament. It bends international conventions governing the treatment of asylum seekers. Two legal advisers and one standards adviser have resigned in protest at its flouting of legal norms, with another – Lord Geidt – deciding whether to follow suit. On Thursday 9 December the Conservative Party was fined £17,800 for breaching electoral rules over the Downing Street flat refurbishment.
The Conservatives used to be a party that prided itself on competence, but – the vaccine roll-out apart – this government’s handling of the Covid pandemic has been chaotic: delayed lockdowns, devastated care homes, a farcical £37bn test and trace scheme, ruined school exams and among the world’s highest per capita death tolls.
More than that, it has saddled the country with record NHS waiting lists, a court system stretched to breaking point, surging inflation, sky-high winter heating bills and chronic shortages of goods and labour. It had to slaughter tens of thousands of pigs for lack of abattoirs. There’s even a 500,000 waiting list for driving tests.
The Conservatives used to be the pragmatic party, but Johnson’s government has chosen the hardest possible form of Brexit regardless of the costs to the economy, national unity and Britain’s international standing.
The Conservatives used to be the party of fiscal rectitude, but Johnson’s government has proved fiscally incontinent, running up a colossal national debt and imposing the highest tax burden since the early 1950s. Some of that is due to Covid, but certainly not all.
They used to be the party of business, but they have hamstrung our exporters with a whole new layer of red tape – no previous Tory leader would have declared, “Fuck business”. They used to be the party of the establishment, but this government seems bent on tearing down the civil service, judiciary, parliament, BBC and any other institution it cannot control. They used to be the Conservative and Unionist Party, but now they treat Scotland and Northern Ireland with contempt.
Johnson did “get Brexit done”, but it was a flawed, rushed Brexit that has caused much hardship while failing to yield the new trade deals, regulatory bonfires, NHS dividends or the many other benefits we were promised.
Without Brexit, his government seems devoid of any overarching mission or strategy. It is a government that has reprehensibly failed to use its 80-seat majority to reform the NHS or social care. It is a government that endlessly U-turns. It is a government of slogans, vacuous photo ops, headline-catching gimmicks, jingoism and “dead cat” distractions from the scandal du jour. It is a government that practises the politics of division and has done nothing to heal the country post-Brexit.
Johnson has made “levelling up” his mantra, but in two years he has done precious little to advance it – instead cancelling HS3 and hitting Red Wall voters with higher taxes and inflation. He brags of “Global Britain” even as he cuts foreign aid, abandons Afghanistan to the Taliban, engages in puerile spats with France, poisons relations with the EU and struggles to hold the UK together. Even the US, supposedly our closest ally, is cold shouldering a vastly diminished Britain.
All that, and more, is the reason why I urge North Shropshire’s Conservatives to vote Lib Dem on Thursday. By overturning a 23,000 majority in the constituency (the Tories’ 117th biggest majority seat), voters would send a deafening message to Westminster at a time when Johnson – waist-deep in scandal and sleaze, and with a record low approval rating of minus 42 – is already teetering.
Tory voters would be saying that this is no longer a Conservative government they can support. They would be telling the party’s 361 MPs that none of their seats is safe, that Johnson has become an electoral liability not an election winner, and that they have to remove him before he destroys their party.
They would be saying in the starkest possible terms that they, and the country, deserve far better than this thoroughly rotten Prime Minister and his shabby, incompetent regime.