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by Louise Wilson
27 August 2023
Sketch: Don't talk about the elephant

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Don't talk about the elephant

The Conservatives have turned ignoring elephants into a high art. Indeed, there may now be more elephants than there are Tories, so it’s truly impressive how they insist on ignoring the herd. Don’t speak about the elephant, don’t look at the elephant, don’t even think about the elephant.

Take the elephants in North Yorkshire and Somerset. Tory party chairman Greg Hands simply refused to deal with them the day his party was bruised by Labour and Lib Dem victories.

“The stand-out result was the one in Uxbridge,” Hands told listeners to BBC’s Today. “That’s the one that people weren’t expecting,” he insisted, as chuckles from the usually calm and collected polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice could be heard over the airwaves.

Presenter Nick Robinson tried to steer Hands towards the elephants. What did the MP have to say about the mess the two quadrupedal mammals had left on the Tory HQ carpets?

“Of course there are lessons for us to learn from the disappointments in Selby & Ainsty and Somerton & Frome – where, by the way, Labour also lost their deposit there – but let’s not ignore the fact the stand-out result, the one that’s attracted the most attention and defied expectations, was the Conservatives winning in Uxbridge,” Hands insisted.

Eventually, under pressure from Robinson, Hands admitted that his party “need to do better”. He put the losses down to a “difficult year” for both party and country (avoiding yet another elephant) – but turning the conversation back to London, he insisted the result there proved Labour mayor Sadiq Khan had “botched the job”.

That’s one more elephant the Tories are becoming adept at ignoring: climate change. And so while Rishi Sunak insists he’s at war with those at war with motorists, he’s driving the UK off the cliff of climate breakdown.

But let’s not talk about the elephant. Besides, elephants will probably become extinct soon, what with the linked biodiversity crisis. Then the Tories won’t even need to actively ignore them.

Indeed, a few weeks after the election problems, the prime minister had flown up to Aberdeenshire to insist the granting of new licenses for more exploration of fossil fuels – you know, the things causing climate change – is “better for the environment”.

“This is a good story for the UK,” Sunak told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland. He then accused journalist Martin Geissler of being “completely and utterly wrong” to ask how he’d got to Aberdeenshire, mostly because he didn’t want to address the elephant about his use of private jets. But it’s difficult to avoid talking about something when asked a direct question, so instead Sunak decided it was time he should be going. “I look forward to having that conversation with you again. Thanks very much for having me. Bye-bye,” he said, cheerily, before ringing off like it was a trunk call…

The Conservatives, though, weren’t the only ones trying to avoid talking about elephants this summer. On the day Keir Starmer was under pressure for U-turning on plans to scrap the two-child benefit cap – labelled by his colleagues as “heinous” and “inhumane” – the Labour leader could be found having a cosy chat with a party elder.

Centrist da Keir Starmer told centrist granda Tony Blair that he was having to make “tough decisions”. He blamed his failure to commit to remove a policy that was pushing children into poverty on… Liz Truss. Well, why not? Sunak is quite happy to blame Truss for his own failings, so why can’t Starmer?

“She proved the thesis that if you make unfunded commitments, then the economy is damaged and working people pay the price,” Starmer told Blair, to which the former Labour leader nodded sagely.

Starmer’s big aim, he said, was to “return Labour to the service of working people”. “It’s not the only path a progressive party could take, there are other directions,” he added. Other directions, presumably, meaning being progressive and scrapping policies which harm people. But that’s an elephant Starmer would rather not tame, in case it hampers his journey to Downing Street. Instead he pledged to “break Britain out of its current doom loop”. Which sounds nice.

North of the border, Humza Yousaf is refusing to tackle his own elephant – namely, how to deliver on his party’s main ambition of Scottish independence. The first minister launched another paper on what in independent Scotland could achieve, this time on how citizenship would work in this hypothetical scenario.

But when asked about the prospect of a second referendum becoming reality, he simply said: “If there was a referendum tomorrow, we would win it and win it comprehensively.”

He’s better than an ostrich at sticking his head in the sand. Lalalala, he can’t hear the polls or the stamping of elephant feet.

This sketch appears in Holyrood's Annual Review 2022-23 special.


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