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16 May 2023

The Tory right says the quiet part out loud

Day two of the National Conservatism conference offered an unnerving insight into our ruling party.

By Jonn Elledge

It’s day two of the National Conservatism conference, the event that Melanie Phillips in the Times has helpfully reassured the world is “not a fascist plot”! Yesterday’s proceedings opened with Christopher DeMuth, the chairman, announcing that he had been “communing” with the late Margaret Thatcher and found she was “totally on board”, which is nice. Other highlights included a speech from the MP Danny Kruger, a man who supported Boris Johnson and whose parents’ relationship began with a 13-year affair, explaining to us that “mothers and fathers sticking together for the sake of the children… is the only possible basis for a safe and functioning society”; “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, Katharine Birbalsingh, declaiming that she would be putting attendees in detention, for the crime of letting their kids go to woke schools; and the author Douglas Murray having a whinge about how unfair it is that nobody is allowed to love their country now, “because the Germans mucked up”. It’s all going swimmingly.

Surely the best news line to come out of the conference so far, though, came from Liz Truss backer and “deadbeat dadJacob Rees-Mogg: his admission that the government’s introduction of voter ID had backfired on the Tory party. In a section on Labour’s plans to offer votes to 16-year-olds and non-citizens, he argued that, “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding that their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections.” As leader of the House of Commons under Boris Johnson, of course, Rees-Mogg was one of the people most responsible for getting the voter ID legislation onto the books.

He was, in other words, saying the quiet part out loud. “Don’t want to go over the top, but this is absolutely jaw-dropping,” tweeted Jon Sopel, co-host of the News Agents podcast: an acknowledgement that “it WAS an attempt to gerrymander the elections”. And it was: in an interview with Sopel’s former employers the BBC afterwards, Rees-Mogg helpfully clarified that, “I thought people assumed that it would help get more Conservatives out and in the end, it actually did the opposite.”

Things can sometimes be shocking without being particularly surprising, though, and senior Tories drumming up support by attacking things the government they served in did literally five minutes earlier has been a fairly major theme of our politics since 2016. (So, come to that, have false equivalencies, such as the suggestion that expanding the franchise is morally identical to limiting it.)

And this is not the first time that Rees-Mogg has simply said the thing that we all assume they’re thinking but are generally not stupid enough to say. In 2019, six weeks before the election, he suggested to an LBC radio host that those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire after heeding fire brigade advice to remain in their flats had lacked “common sense” – a comment that served to both encourage dangerous behaviour and insult the dead at the same time. Rees-Mogg is essentially the villain who keeps getting defeated because he can’t resist the urge to tell James Bond his whole plan. For all the comments about his privilege, his heartlessness, the hypocrisy of his love of both Boris Johnson and traditional family values, people still seem to miss that this guy just isn’t very bright. It all goes to show what a posh voice and some bad Latin can do for you.

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Anyway, two more days of the conference to go. At time of writing, first thing Tuesday morning, the Brexiteer Daniel Hannan is on, and highlights still to come include Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, Lee Anderson, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, and, oh look, Melanie Phillips. I for one can’t wait to hear about all the other ways in which this Conservative government has failed.

[See also: The Left Power List]

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