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29 June 2024

The Tory media has gone into meltdown

Anger, denial, bargaining… is the right-wing press cycling through the stages of grief?

By Jonn Elledge

The thing no one tells you about the stages of grief is that they are not, in fact, stages. Any serious bereavement is likely to produce periods of denial, anger, bargaining and depression – but there’s no pre-ordained order to them, and they don’t show up neatly, one after the other, but pile upon you at random or sometimes all at once.

This exhausted government has not left this mortal plane quite yet – but already those who loved it are in open mourning for what they’ve lost. In the pages of the right-wing press, every stage of grief, almost, is already on show even now.

Few are surely still in denial that the Tories are about to lose (though the failure of the historically centrist Times to row in behind the next government might raise an eyebrow): the election is under a week away, the electorate has failed in its duty to narrow the polls, and even Rishi Sunak has settled on the closing message of “please don’t be too mean when you sack me”.

The papers are awash with denial about the factors to blame for that defeat, however. “Why do Tories face disaster when their policies are sound?” asked Iain McWhirter in Monday’s Times, a conclusion that may come as a surprise to anyone who’s recently had to live in this country. In the Telegraph, Philip Johnston complained that “Sunak may have made the biggest electoral mistake in British history”, as if the problem is one of timing, not one of the government’s record, and that everything would have been fine if the Prime Minister had simply waited just a little more time. The Sun, meanwhile, seems in denial that the election is happening at all. On Friday, it splashed instead on the news that England footballer Anthony Gordon had fallen off his bike.

Anger, too, is in full flow. Back in the Telegraph, David Frost – a man whose unevidenced but unshakeable belief that his views in some way matter is almost inspirational – began Friday’s column with a recitation of the text of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”, which is never a good sign. “Let’s be clear where blame for this Tory disaster really lies,” thundered the headline, beside a large picture of David Cameron. The role of those rather more directly involved in Brexit negotiations and all that followed went strangely under-discussed.

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Others are directing their anger instead towards those who really are to blame for this mess: the voters. “People who vote Reform will get the opposite of what they want,” whines Nick Timothy, a man who’s not taken responsibility for a single thing that’s happened in politics since the 2017 election campaign and is not planning to start now (it’s possible that Timothy is about to cap his magnificent career with the failure to win a previously safe seat in Suffolk). Over in the Times, Camilla Long railed against those ungrateful members of the public who’d had the gall to ask Sunak questions at an event whose entire purpose was giving them the chance to do just that: raging at the hostility of “a woman – girl, really”, who I’m fairly sure was older than Long herself was when she began writing her column; complaining, too, of the “entitlement and rage” of a young man who’d asked, “is there any policy you can offer me that would positively impact my life?” How dare these upstarts ask a question reserved to retirees and columnists alone?

The meltdown in the pages of the Telegraph has been, to be fair, extremely funny. “Armageddon is upon us, and Britain will never be the same again,” writes Allister Heath in the exact same tone with which Gildas wrote about the end of Roman Britain. “Britain is about to be pushed over the edge,” agrees Sherelle Jacobs. “Keir Starmer is terrifyingly close to turning Britain into a one-party state,” argues my old friend Daniel Hannan – but he’s done his share of bargaining (“There is simply no rational case for the sort of Labour landslide we are probably about to see”) and anger (“Keir Starmer is simply immoral”), too. I do not recall this concern with quaint concepts like effective opposition or loser’s consent being a feature of Dan’s views in the months I was writing a column about them every week.

And then there’s the Mail, trying to convince its readers and itself all hope is not yet lost. “POLL THAT SHOWS IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO STOP STARMER SUPERMAJORITY” screamed Friday’s splash. (All Mail splashes are capped up, like a WhatsApp from your nan.) The sad thing is, though, that a closer inspection showed that the poll suggested no such thing at all: even the undecideds meant to provide the Tories’ salvation lean far more towards Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, and it’s far from clear whether the Mail is still in touch with its own readers on this one. But it’s not too late, guys! We can still turn this around!

Even once the election is done, reality may take some time to hit. The Tories may yet overperform the worst of their polling – they can, surely, hardly do the opposite – thus triggering a slew of “Disappointing night for Labour” stories about a three-figure majority and the Tories’ all-time worst result. Then the lobby is likely to spend the summer more interested in the chaos of a Tory leadership election than in the boring reality of majority Labour government. It could be well into the autumn before it sinks in quite what a historically bad election result and being locked out of power for five or more years actually means.

And then the cycle could begin again. Acceptance, I fear, will be a long time in coming.

[See also: Hamish Falconer: “We will be forming a government under much harder conditions than 1997”]

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