The teenager in the posh frock delivers her advice with the authority of weary experience. “Since this is your first Conservative Future event, I thought I ought to say — watch out for the men here,” she whispers, as her friends disappear to the bar. “Most of them can’t be trusted.”
We’re at the Young Britons’ Foundation summer party, incorporating the leadership hustings for Conservative Future, where I’ve come to observe the young right in full victory rut.
Descending three flights of stairs to the private function room at the Mahiki club in central London is a little like stepping into a sewer where the cultural overspill of the 1980s has been draining for the past 20 years. The room is stuffed with pasty young men in suits and ties drinking nasty orange cocktails and gossiping about Ken Clarke; the smattering of women present are wearing expensive polyester and listening prettily to what the boys have to say.
It’s like a scene from one of those time-travelling detective shows, down to the droning muzak, the atmosphere of grim introspection and the suspicion that everyone here is acting a role. The young people lounging around the bar seem to be rehearsing a set of social stereotypes that feel too clichéd to be real, mouthing empty lines of propaganda — “Thatcher did what needed to be done!” — with only a rudimentary understanding of their implications.
The Young Britons’ Foundation is a finishing school for the centre right that claims to be non-partisan and offers classes in dealing with the media, but the organisers have somehow allowed at least one journalist to infiltrate an evening they’re hosting for the youth wing of the Conservative Party. Eighty per cent of the people here are men and they have a lot to say about how the bloody Lib Dems are spoiling everything; and they say it over the heads of the women present.
“Yah, I really don’t know what it is about Tory guys,” continues Posh Frock. “They’re worse than normal. I think it’s because there are just so many men in the party and it makes them . . . you know . . .” She fumbles in her bag, pulls out a pink gauze purse full of enough prescription medication to restock Boots and pops some painkillers. “It just makes them arrogant, I suppose.”
Is she some sort of feminist, then? “No! God, no!” she squeals. “No, definitely not, it’s nothing like that. It’s just — be careful. That’s all I’m saying.”
A hush falls; the hustings have begun. The three candidates for the Conservative Future leadership are all boisterous white men in their mid-twenties, all tall, all a little jowly, distinguishable by the colour of their shirts and the fact that one of them is wearing hipster spectacles. Their pitches are a unanimous declaration of strategic befuddlement.
“Now that we’re in power, we’ve got to show the left that we can win the ideological arguments because — because we’re right!” declares Hipster Spectacles, but he doesn’t sound convinced. His platitudes about “progressive politics” elicit disapproving tuts from the back row, who seem to be conducting a rehearsal for their future in the Commons. “Progressive, what does that mean?” mutters James from Kensington. “Everything seems to be progressive these days. It’s the buzzword.”
“Yeah, like the ‘big society’,” enjoins prematurely balding Ollie, who works in the House of Lords and is slurping a Mai Tai from a tumbler shaped like a tribal woman’s skull (my drink is in half a pineapple; it’s all terribly ethnic). “Nobody knows what the ‘big society’ means! It doesn’t mean anything!”
“It means cutting about a hundred billion a year from public services,” says his friend, adding hastily: “I mean, like, obviously that’s a good thing.”
“We need to make sure our party follows our principles and not those of the Liberal Democrats!” shouts another candidate. “It’s the bloody Lib Dems who’re the problem. They’re getting in the way of everything!”
During the bellow of assent that follows, one of my new friends brushes a hand surreptitiously and quite deliberately against my knee, like someone trying to be seductive in the 17th century. With a flash of awful clarity, I realise that these are precisely the young men my grandmother warned me about — that these are the heirs-apparent to Britain’s political system, and not one of them has paused to consider if they deserve it.
The debate is thrown open to the floor and eventually one of the few ladies in the room puts up her hand to ask a polite question about the representation of women in Tory politics.
“Well, obviously I think women should be more visible in the party,” begins one candidate, grinning as a roar of appreciation goes up for his blokey innuendo. There follow some platitudes about how unfortunate it is that few women are taking advantage of this uniquely welcoming atmosphere to put themselves forward and assurances that “positive discrimination” will never be a part of Conservative Future’s way of doing politics.
It’s alright, though — there’s at least one woman whom these people respect. “We need to attack the left like they attacked us,” says one of the candidates, his top button straining. “We need to vilify them like they vilified the greatest prime minister this country has ever had — Margaret Thatcher!”
Sudden, thunderous applause and thumping of the bar from 50 young men in blazers who were largely prenatal when Thatcher left Downing Street. “She did what needed to be done,” continues the speaker fervently. I begin to worry that this is actually a neoliberal ecstatic cult, and that one of the young men on the platform is about to start shaking and summoning the spirit of the Iron Lady. Time for a little break.
Sucking down fresh Belgravia air and nicotine in the street, I meet a young graduate in a pink shirt who decides to share my lighter and his left-libertarian misgivings. “The Thatcher thing is weirdly sexualised, isn’t it?” he says. “I heard one of them saying that it’d be a privilege to lick her boots.” It’s almost as if the right can’t express respect for any woman without declaring her super-sexy.
Unfortunately, despite my brilliant disguise of lip gloss and vacant expression, Pink Shirt has recognised me as a New Statesman writer. He promises not to expose me — on condition that I go on a date with him next week. I decide that, on a scale of one to patriarchy, this is likely to be the high point of the evening, and accept.
Back inside the club, the debate has morphed into a disco for the death of youthful defiance. Someone has turned the lights down and the music up, and now the bright young things of Britain’s Conservative future are shuffling and hip-swivelling to the Kaiser Chiefs, their ties at half-mast. It’s only 10.30pm and already there are several unfortunate cases of gentleman’s flush, the sweat-misted, red cheeks that are the plague of the young right at play.
There seem to be a lot more women present, too. When I ask the nearest person in tucked-in shirtsleeves why that might be, he informs me that some girls “just aren’t interested in politics”. As if to prove a point, he grabs my arm and tugs me on to the dance floor. I wobble and totter like centre-right ideology on a pair of borrowed heels and, as Beyoncé starts to blast out of the speakers, I spin around in shock. I’ve just had my bottom squeezed.
Let me describe this bottom-squeeze to you, because it has given me lasting insight into the icy political libido of the young right. The anonymous fondle is brief, bouncy and strangely bloodless, like being groped by a Pete Waterman song. It’s the sense of entitlement that stuns more than anything; the casual lack of respect for the less powerful, the assumption that it’s all in good fun.
I knew that women and the poor were going to feel the pinch as soon as the Tories took power, but I never imagined the paternalism would be quite this literal. Unable to deliver a smack in the face for fear of breaking my cover, my knuckles or both, I do what women have historically done in any boys’ club. I giggle and I say nothing. And then I leave.