Why is Tory party chair Brandon Lewis trying to get someone sacked over a picture of a penis?

A row over a dick pic reveals more than you’d think. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party chairman, has called on Sally Keeble, former Labour MP for Northampton North and the party’s parliamentary candidate for the seat, to resign after she liked a picture of an erect penis on Twitter. He’s also demanding that Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, comment on the row.

It’s a move that is provoking a number of questions like, “Does Brandon Lewis think that David Mundell should have resigned for a similar offence?”, “Is this wise given your party not two months ago restored the whip to MPs facing serious allegations of sexual harassment?”, and “What’s wrong with liking pictures of penises anyway?”

Keeble has said that the liking was the result of being hacked, rarely tweets and I am told is not a particularly avid user of the medium. But to be blunt, even if she had liked a picture of a penis: so what? Many people are quite fond of penises, and many others find them at least tolerable, and some members of both groups enjoy looking at pictures of them. Given that Keeble is not, as far as I am aware, a supporter of the anti-porn movement, it is no more a commentary on her fitness for office than if she liked a picture of a cute puppy, or a recommendation of a nice Northampton restaurant, or anything else that brings her joy. And as far as I can make out, literally no one in British politics, other than Brandon Lewis himself, believes that Keeble has serious questions to answer.

But it speaks to the interesting overarching problem of the Conservative Party’s political messaging, which is that it doesn’t have an overarching message. Labour’s big message is, “Is this economy working for you, Y/N?” And that’s the through line of everything it does, from its Our Country party political broadcast through to every tweet, message and Corbyn speech.

The Conservative Party has two obstacles in the way of having a cohesive message. The first is that it has no parliamentary majority so it cannot do anything: it has the powerlessness of opposition, coupled with the responsibility of being in office. The second is that MPs don’t want their current leader to take them into the next election, and as a result they have no one to set and enforce the dividing lines on which they want to fight the next election.

In lieu of a policy agenda to promote or a dividing line to draw, the party falls back to default oppositionalism, criticising Labour for everything and anything, even when, in cases like this, it makes everyone involved look like a bit of a dick.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.