The Conservatives' contempt will come back to haunt them

Written by Laura Kelly on 10 September 2019 in Comment

As the countdown to the threatened Halloween Brexit ticks away, the Tories will be haunted by the events of the last few days, writes Laura Kelly

David Anderson/Holyrood

Mere minutes after Jacob Rees-Mogg lost perpendicularity on the front benches of parliament, Twitter (that ever-combustible, petrol-soaked rag) had already exploded in derision, disgust and memes – but it will be a long time before we see the back of that odious image.

Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson may previously have had some success peddling the baffling argument that they were the true defenders of the populace – preparing to set up a ‘People vs Parliament’ showdown in the final run-up to Brexit – but here was the reality laid bare, in all its disdain.

Scarcely could the most diabolical anti-Tory have photoshopped a more perfect image to convey the disrespect with which the privileged upper echelons of the party hold our democracy – and by extension, all of us. Smugly he reclined, his limbs forming a lightning rod for class warfare. The carefully constructed, ‘amusing’ period drama persona sloughed off, the offhand nastiness revealed. Most of us will never find ourselves in the position of leader of the House of Commons, but the vast majority looked at that and realised if we had that attitude in our workplace, we’d soon find ourselves in the position of searching for a new job.

Three years after the Brexit vote, I’d be a fool to argue that Twitter provides a reliable barometer of public opinion, but this image is so skin-crawlingly seductive that it is sure to have a life far beyond the keyboard warriors. Underlining every fair and unfair preconception you might hold about the ruling classes, it is confirmation bias catnip. Entitled? Check. Contemptuous? Check. Out of touch? Check. Lounging in comfort watching his offshore investments grow as the rest of us graft, living in fear of losing our jobs as the economy crashes? You bet that’s a check.

In an extraordinary visual gift to the opposition, Rees-Mogg has cast himself as the ultimate prejudice-confirming pin-up. It won’t take a Saatchi to weaponise it. Better bulk-buy the Alka-Seltzer in preparation, you’re going to be mighty sick of that photo before the year is out. 

Even as I write, less than 48 hours later, ‘A Toff Reclines’ is already finding its place as a defining bit of visual shorthand for this administration – but it was merely the most graphic moment in the government’s descent into contempt and chaos.

If at the start of the prorogation debate it was faintly plausible (in a through-the-looking-glass kind of way) that the government was trying to enforce the will of the people by suspending parliament, the illusion could not sustain its first encounter with reality.

Just before he hit the memes, Rees-Mogg had used a rambling speech peppered with self-consciously dropped Latin and clumsy alliteration to needlessly pique Irish viewers, as well as those with a better grasp of history than his expensive education has given him. “The approach taken today is the most unconstitutional use of this House since the days of Charles Stewart Parnell when he tried to bung up parliament,” he said. “What is Jacob Rees-Mogg’s problem with Charles Stewart Parnell?” the Irish Times replied.

‘Blame the Irish’ has been a recurrent strategy of the Brexiters, but blaming the Irish of more than 130 years ago was a reach, even for someone who is pleased to present himself as a Victorian eccentric.

A hero to many in his homeland, known as the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’ and with a city centre Dublin street named after him, Parnell was an Irish nationalist MP who used obstructionist tactics in the 1880s to force Westminster to take Irish issues seriously. One suspects he’d be pleased rather than otherwise to be namechecked as a touch point for those who were again trying to force careless English rulers to pay attention to their neighbouring island.

Not to be upstaged in infamy, the cracks were also showing in Boris Johnson’s fastidiously rumpled public image. With precious few real-world achievements to his name, Johnson’s main triumph has been the maintenance of the character ‘Boris’.

‘Boris’ is charming, a great speaker, fantastic at rallying the people behind him. Prime Minister Johnson, meanwhile, lost his majority live on TV whilst stumbling at the dispatch box and then went on to lose his first three votes in the Commons – a new record! He finished his opening day in the Commons as PM by booting 21 MPs out of the Conservative party, including Nicholas Soames, the grandson of his hero Winston Churchill, and Father of the House Ken Clarke. Clarke later told Newsnight he did not even know if he could vote for the Conservatives next time. Rory Stewart, meanwhile, was sacked by text whilst accepting a politician of the year award from GQ. So much for the force of the ‘Boris’ personality, hey?

If it wasn’t before this week, the truth is clear – it isn’t enough to be a character if you hold your voters in contempt. Psychologists consider contempt to be the prime indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Like a marriage, a government can survive many things… but not that. The polar opposite of empathy, contempt is a sure sign that the social compact is broken.

That Johnson’s administration is floundering on the very theatre they’re supposed to be masters of is notable, but the fact is we already knew they don’t care about us. Why else would they be attempting to close parliament for such an extended period? Not only are they silencing our elected representatives on Brexit, the move will also effectively kill off all outstanding bills going through the legislative process. Among the laws caught up in Johnson’s desperate attempt to save face is a flagship bill dealing with domestic abuse. And much as I personally hope the Northern Irish Assembly doesn’t get its act together before the province is forced into less repressive abortion laws, I’d be surprised to find out Johnson was similarly motivated in his strategy, which increases the chance of direct rule.

One way or another, we are not far from a general election. As the countdown to the threatened Halloween Brexit ticks away, the Tories will be haunted by the events of the last few days. In Maya Angelou’s memorable words, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” We can only hope the electorate takes note.

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