The Conservatives’ narcissism has finally caught up with them

For Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, politics is not just a game for privileged people but a catwalk on which they can display their egos.

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The French novelist Édouard Louis once wrote that “for the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.” Nothing better illustrates this than the chaos and self-obsession that has characterised the opening days of the Conservative election campaign.

Yesterday it was Jacob Rees-Mogg, apologising profusely for the claim that “common sense” would have allowed him to escape the Grenfell inferno. Today it is Boris Johnson, spouting verifiable lies in the Telegraph. Tomorrow, and for many days afterwards, it will be wall-to-wall public schoolboys flaunting their ignorance.

Like all elections, this one is dramatising a long-term change that has previously been lost in the noise. It reveals just how much Conservative politics has become not just a game for privileged people, but a kind of catwalk on which they can display their egos.

Take Johnson's diatribe in the Telegraph. It could have been a reasoned and factually grounded attempt to rally an army of golf club bores to get on a coach and go campaigning in Labour's heartlands. But he could not resist a reference to Greek mythology in the first paragraph. And in the second paragraph, he claimed that “hundreds of billions” of foreign investment would flood into the UK after Brexit. Given that the long-term average inward flow has been £12bn a year since 1987, it was obvious hyperbole, and could not be substantiated. 

As for Johnson's attempt to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a latter-day Stalin, ready to obliterate the lower middle class with tax rises, just as the Soviet leader murdered the well-to-do farmers known as “kulaks” — it may have produced chortles in the staff room at Eton, and in the Spectator offices, but it has landed flat elsewhere. 

Politics, for Johnson and the entire clan surrounding him, has become a form of showing off. And like all narcissists, they cannot abide an accurate reflection. So a dull but competent politician like Philip Hammond has not only to be sacked and denied the whip; he has to be forced out of politics altogether, lest the voters of Runnymede and Weybridge be tempted to back someone who knows the difference between a million and a billion.

But there is always a price to pay for overconfidence, and the Conservatives can be made to pay it. This week, they had planned to release an official Treasury analysis of Labour’s spending plans. It would have shown, no doubt, that the party cannot collect all the tax revenue it hopes to raise, and that its spending plans would not produce enough growth and productivity to justify the money.

It would have been a gift to the Tory campaign, to be dipped into at every TV debate and broadcast. But cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, Britain's top civil servant, nixed the idea. It was an obvious abuse of power and spurious in any case because Labour's manifesto spending pledges have yet to be announced. Sajid Javid, who has refused to let government economists analyse the impact of the actual Brexit deal, was said to be “furious” at the intervention. But it was another own goal, and will allow Labour to shape its own tax and spend narrative when the manifesto is released.

For Johnson, the outcome of this election hangs on whether he can make serious inroads into Labour-held seats in the Midlands and Northern England. He is certain to lose seats in Scotland to the SNP, and to the Lib Dems in southern England, so he needs to translate the feeling of betrayal felt over Brexit, especially by older men in former industrial areas, into a narrative strong enough to make them vote Tory on a day when the sun sets at 15:45.

Yet everything the Tories are doing thwarts the creation of this narrative: letting Rees-Mogg become the party's insouciant public face; quoting Latin; using bluster and hyperbole where facts would have done the job better; doctoring videos in the plain sight of a journalism trade that is currently paranoid about fake news.

Insiders attribute these missteps to infighting among Johnson's team. But Édouard Louis, whose memoir of working class life Who Killed My Father I quoted above, gets to the heart of the problem. The rich engage heavily in politics despite the fact that its outcomes do not matter to them. Recalling his father organising a trip to the beach to celebrate an increase in the school uniform grant, Louis wrote: ”The ruling class may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs, no government ever inspires a trip to the beach.” 

For the working class it is different, and one hour spent on the doorstep in a marginal constituency shows why. Yes, among some elderly voters, this election is still about Brexit. They don't care that the Tories may abolish their free TV licence, or that Labour is offering free personal care, and that the planet is burning. They want the migrants gone and Britain “back to the way it was”.

But once you talk to people who are actually working, and bringing up kids, or paying off a student loan, it is not hard to engage them in subjects beyond “getting Brexit done”. In fact, the longer Labour has to do this, and the longer the Tories go on blustering and getting empty-chaired on Sky News, the better it is for the opposition. That's why I never understood Johnson's insistence on the longest possible campaign. But once you understand the essentially performative nature of politics for the rich, it falls into place. To preen your ego, to find new acolytes among the young and dumb who staff the think tanks, to polish your Latin, to glide by chauffer-driven Merc from one TV studio to the next, what you need is for this to go on as long as possible.

So if Labour can play it right, this long election is a gift. The key to success is an eye-catching offer based on borrowing to invest, taxing the rich to make our society fairer, and spending on a few big ticket items that will make an immediate difference to ordinary people. If it were up to me I would make the offers fewer and bigger. Stop talking about “austerity” — start talking about the thousands of homes that will be insulated and double glazed, the energy bills that will be slashed, the trains that will run on time, and cost less to travel on. And about the planet: 16-year-olds may not have the vote, but they are a transmitter of the climate agenda into every living room in Britain.

Labour’s position on Brexit, so long the target of feigned confusion by news reporters, is actually so simple that I've already seen it “land” in doorstep conversations: get Brexit sorted in six months; stay close to Europe either way; and move on to rebuilding Britain as a fairer country.

Given this, I was not surprised by rumours that, after Nigel Farage announced the Brexit Party would stand against the Tories in all seats, Johnson asked aides if he could call the election off. Sorry, Boris, the troop trains have left the station, and like the privileged prats who sailed off to the Crimea with morning suits packed in their luggage, the preening Tory officer class are about to find out that five weeks is a long time in the trenches.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.