Who in their right mind would want to be Boris Johnson’s next ethics adviser? Matt Hancock, perhaps? Owen Paterson? Prince Andrew needs a role.
For that matter, who would want to be the Conservative candidates in this Thursday’s by-elections in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton? If Nadeem Ahmed and Helen Hurford both somehow manage to win and retain those seats for their party, they will get no credit. But there’s a good chance they will lose them – even in Tiverton, where Hurford is defending the Conservatives’ 24,000 majority – and their political careers will be over before they’ve begun.
Who remembers the hapless Neil Shastri-Hurst, who saw a Tory majority of 23,000 turned into a Lib Dem majority of 6,000 in North Shropshire last December? Or Peter Fleet, who saw a 16,000 Tory majority in Chesham and Amersham become an 8,000 Lib Dem majority a year ago this week?
An even greater problem is what possible platform can Hurford and Ahmed campaign on? With what achievements, what plausible promises, can they woo the voters? And how can they defend the indefensible? Asked about Boris Johnson’s moral character during a hustings in Tiverton last week, Hurford talked of the government’s Covid furlough scheme, its vaccination programme and the Ukraine war. She was jeered and booed by an audience concerned with much more immediate and pressing problems.
Hurford and Ahmed cannot boast of the government’s economic management – not when the economy is imploding. Not when inflation is 9 per cent and rising. Not when the tax burden is the highest since the Second World War, and living standards are falling at their fastest rate since the 1950s. Not when recession looms, filling your car with petrol costs £100, and millions may soon face a choice between heating and eating.
Hurford and Ahmed cannot invoke their party leader – not when Johnson is so hated that they have omitted his picture from their campaign leaflets and he daren’t appear on the streets of Tiverton or Wakefield (he evidently felt safer in Ukraine last Friday). Not when three-quarters of the country consider him a liar, two-fifths of his own MPs want him gone and surveys of party members by the ConservativeHome website show him to be by far the most unpopular member of his government.
The two candidates can no longer portray the scandal-plagued Conservatives as the party of law, order and moral rectitude – not when Johnson has become the first prime minister to be penalised for breaking the law while in office, and the police have issued fixed penalty notices to 82 of his staff and colleagues for partying in No 10 during the Covid lockdowns. Not when he routinely breaks domestic and international laws. Not when his egregious conduct has compelled two ethics advisers (Alex Allan and Lord Geidt), his policy chief (Munira Mirza), the head of the government’s legal department (Jonathan Jones), the government’s senior law officer in Scotland (Lord Keen), his anti-corruption tsar (John Penrose), his anti-fraud minister (Lord Agnew) and a justice minister (Lord Wolfson) to resign. And not when this week’s by-elections have been caused by the conviction of Wakefield’s previous Tory MP for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old child, and the resignation of Tiverton’s previous Tory MP for watching porn on his mobile phone in the chamber of the Commons.
They can’t talk of the government’s managerial competence – not when public services are collapsing despite soaring taxes. Not when the country faces the biggest rail strike in 30 years, and doctors, nurses and teachers and NHS staff may follow suit. Not when it has become almost impossible to get a GP appointment or an ambulance in some parts of the country, and there are ten-hour waits in hospital accident-and-emergency departments. Not when travel has become a nightmare, with flights cancelled wholesale, baggage mountains and hours-long queues at passport control. That’s if you can acquire a passport from the Passport Office in the first place. Or a driving licence from a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that is equally unfit for purpose.
They can’t talk to voters of Conservative values – not when Johnson and his cronies seek to tear down the country’s most venerable institutions, risk the break-up of the Union, “fuck” business, trash the “good chap” theory of government and are at odds with the Church of England and Prince of Wales.
They can’t even talk of pledges kept – not when Brexit is so manifestly unfinished and its promised benefits are nowhere to be seen. Not when “levelling up” has become a national joke and “Global Britain” an international one. Not when the government has so manifestly failed to build more houses and hospitals, stop illegal immigration, clean up Britain’s rivers, provide all homes with superfast broadband and so much else besides.
But this is not the government’s fault, Hurford and Ahmed protest. It’s the fault of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, they say. And to an extent they’re right. But they need to explain why, by just about any measure, Britain is doing so much worse than almost any other developed country. Why it’s projected to have the lowest growth rate (zero) of any developed nation except Russia next year. And why Johnson’s (mis)government has yet to come up with any coherent plan, any plausible strategy, for countering the economic meltdown that the country faces.
Flailing and floundering, bent only on survival and utterly heedless of the national good, it instead seeks to divert us with populist gimmicks – restoring imperial measures, bringing back grammar schools, cutting the civil service – and to divide us with wedge issues.
Thus it does nothing to avert a railway strike that it shamelessly portrays as “Labour’s strike”. Thus it seeks to deport some of the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people to one of Africa’s nastiest regimes so it can attack “leftie lawyers”, the judiciary and the European Court of Human Rights. Thus it threatens to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol, which it negotiated, acclaimed and ratified to secure the Brexit deal, so it can pick a new fight with Brussels – even at the risk of a trade war with the EU, damaging Europe’s united front against Russian aggression, and angering the US.
Hurford did look embarrassed during last week’s hustings. In a separate interview, when invited to do so, she simply could not bring herself to describe Johnson as honest. Despite those hints of a vestigial conscience, I feel no sympathy for her or Ahmed, invidious though their positions are. I simply cannot understand how any decent, honest person could defend, or seek to support in parliament, the most divisive, destructive and degenerate government and prime minister in living memory.
[Follow the latest news from the by-elections in our Live blog: LIVE: Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-election results – New Statesman]