What's really going on when we call James Cleverly stupid?

What is the difference between James Cleverly and Brandon Lewis? I would suggest it isn’t their relative levels of intelligence. 

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The Conservatives have had a disastrous 24 hours. Jacob Rees-Mogg implied that the victims of the Grenfell tower tragedy lacked “common sense”, then Andrew Bridgen attempted to defend his colleague by explaining that Rees-Mogg is simply more “clever”, more of a “leader” than those who perished.

A Conservative candidate had to apologise for saying benefits claimants should be “put down”. Calls built for Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns to resign over the alleged sabotage of a rape trial by his former aide (in the past few minutes, he has). And then, of course, the Conservatives doctored a video of Keir Starmer. 

Who do the Conservatives send out to bat when things are going wrong? Their chairman, as custom dictates. So, wheeled out onto the airwaves this morning was James Cleverly. Flitting from news studio to new studio, appearing on seven different programmes, Cleverly spun and blustered his way through each terrible news story one by one, while a separate controversy built about his non-appearance on Kay Burley’s show.

If it were Brandon Lewis, the party’s former chairman, how would we respond to a performance like this morning’s? We would condemn the mendacity, the bad faith, the (on some occasions, hilarious) refusal to engage with the substance of the terrible insensitivity of Rees-Mogg’s comments, the dangerous precedent of publishing misleading campaigning material and then doubling down on it. We wouldn’t, however, jump to call Lewis stupid, which is exactly the response to James Cleverly.

What is it about Cleverly that makes this such a common reaction? A part of it may, admittedly, be his name. Whenever he does anything, it seems, a rather tedious joke pops up on social media that he has been, well, not so clever. There is, furthermore, the added joy of Cleverly’s constituency name: Braintree. 

But the recurring trope of Cleverly as uniquely stupid is most often made without any recourse to wit or humour: it’s just a recurring theme on social media to refer to him as “thick”, “dim-witted”, an “idiot”. What is the difference between James Cleverly and Brandon Lewis? I would suggest it isn’t their relative levels of intelligence. 

Another politician tarred with the stupidity brush with alarming regularity is Diane Abbott, who personally received half of all the abuse directed at women MPs at the last election. It’s an inexact science, but the others seem to be David Lammy, Priti Patel, and maybe Angela Rayner, or Mark Francois. In all of the above cases, it’s worth asking whether that’s genuinely informed by their intellectual capabilities, and why Jacob Rees-Mogg gets none of it, even when he tells a radio station that the victims of a national tragedy lacked “common sense”.

The left tends to be vigilant about calling out the racist and sexist biases that inform so much of the unique treatment of Diane Abbott in the media and online. And, for all of the racist media coverage of Meghan Markle, there is an intelligent, perceptive acknowledgment from other parts of the media that that is what is at play. But when a trope emerges about a black Conservative politician, it’s maybe harder to spot, and there is maybe less of a will to tackle it.

For what it’s worth, Cleverly is a pretty effective spinner. Certainly much better than Andrew Bridgen, who managed to go on the radio in defence of Jacob Rees-Mogg, only to agree that Jacob Rees-Mogg would have been too clever to die in the Grenfell fire. 

Recycling the idea that James Cleverly is an unusually stupid politician does nothing to make the case that it’s unacceptable to doctor videos, call for poor people to be “put down”, or so damningly misunderstand the factors at play in a national tragedy. It’s an easy win on social media to recycle a stereotype about a politician without thinking about what it means. But it doesn’t win the argument on the Conservatives’ string of scandals; and in the meantime, it quietly loses the battle on a much bigger front.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman