Forgive me for writing about myself, but I have a dilemma. I am called from time to time by GB News. That is the television channel whose star presenter is Nigel Farage. The channel that proved too right wing even for Andrew Neil. The channel that suspended Guto Harri, now Boris Johnson’s communications director, for taking the knee during a discussion about racism.
They ask me to appear on this programme or that, usually to discuss Boris Johnson or Brexit. They and I both know why they want me on, though the reason is always left unsaid. I am their token “lefty”. My job is to provide “balance”. I assume they come to me because they are struggling to find any higher-profile moderates or progressives willing to appear.
My gut reaction is to say no. I hate the sort of propaganda, and the conspiracy theories masquerading as fact, that GB News pumps out. Friends who work at the BBC are horrified that I would even consider these invitations. They tell me that I’m being used, and that when Ofcom comes knocking on GB News’s door, accusing it of political imbalance, they will point to useful idiots like me by way of rebuttal.
But usually I say yes. I do so because I feel I cannot just preach to the converted, including readers of the New Statesman. I do so because I do not believe I can decry the political polarisation of our country without at least trying to talk to those on the other side of the Great Divide. And who knows, on a good day I might even win one or two over.
Thus I recently appeared on a show hosted by Nana Akua to discuss whether Brexit had damaged British trade.
This seemed inarguable to me, and I made several points in what I hope was a civil manner. I noted that the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Public Affairs Committee had both said Brexit was damaging British exports, and suggested that this would reduce tax revenues that could otherwise be used to improve public services in Red Wall seats. I pointed out that the raft of new trade deals (as opposed to rollovers) that the Brexiteers promised us – notably one with the US – had failed to materialise.
I challenged Akua to name a single British industry that had benefited from Brexit – certainly not our fishermen, farmers, carmakers, artists and musicians. It was far too soon to tell, she countered. But we’ve had six years to prepare for Brexit since the referendum, I replied, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Brexit Opportunities minister, is having to ask readers of the Sun what EU rules he should scrap. We’ve simply replaced the supposedly oppressive bureaucracy of Brussels with a whole new layer of red tape and border checks, I concluded.
It may or may not have been my finest hour, but very soon the online trolling began. “This smug, smirking eu shill is exactly why I voted ‘Out’. And would do so Again [sic],” wrote a gentleman called Wayne Evans. “I’ve got to a point now that I disagree with the left before they even speak,” said someone calling themselves Cryptkey At Dawn.
A certain Patrick Collins emailed me to say: “Just listened to you on gb news whining and moaning like the posh middle class spoilt self superior far left bitter and twisted remoaner you are and what got me is your sneering at working class voters with your snide insult calling them the Brexit base, everybody knows what your dog whistle is when you say the brexit base and it is just totally leftist snobbery and looking down at the working classes who the likes of you have no control over any more, you lost brexit get over it [sic].”
The Express, that fine impartial paper, even ran a news story quoting a Conservative member of the London Assembly calling my comments “ridiculous”.
My critics are right about some things. For better or worse I am middle class, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. I am also a fervent Remainer, though I was unaware that this is an offence, or that the 2016 referendum result meant we who voted to stay in the EU could no longer express our views.
Where my critics are wrong is in calling me a lefty. I have nothing against the tolerant, as opposed to intolerant, left. I admire its idealism and commitment, though I disagree with some of its policies. But by upbringing and natural inclination I would consider myself a centrist, a passionate moderate who distrusts all ideologues and extremists. I have certainly voted Conservative in the past. I would feel comfortable voting for a Tory party led by the likes of Ken Clarke, Chris Patten or Michael Heseltine. I even supported some, though not all, of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms.
Increasingly I feel the fundamental divide in this country is no longer between left and right, or even between Leavers and Remainers. It is between those who continue to support a Prime Minister who disdains laws, peddles lies, breaks promises, foments division, smears opponents, evades accountability, screws the ordinary people he claims to champion, rewards cronies with jobs, titles and lucrative public contracts, and invariably puts his own self-interest before the national interest – and those of whatever political stripe who long for a return to decency in British political life.
One day viewers of GB News will realise that Johnson has conned and duped them – on Brexit, on levelling up, on “Making Britain Great Again” and on so much else besides. And when those recent converts to Johnson’s singular brand of Conservative populism turn on him and his thoroughly rotten, borderline corrupt government, the Tories will find that their traditional middle-class base – people like me – now view them with disgust.