Are the Tories about to go full Berlusconi?

The Bungafication of the Conservative Party

Is it possible that the Conservative Party is going to recycle its last Prime Minister, the one who was kicked out amidst multiple scandals after sixty of his ministers resigned in despair? Yes it is.

A composite image showing Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi and British politician Boris Johnson side by side, both covering their faces with their palms
The Brotherhood of Party Animals

SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE. Sunak has achieved the 100 nominations he needs to go through to the members’ vote, according to his supporters, but he’s not said he’ll stand yet. Seems likely he will, though, since close allies, including Oliver Dowden, are tweeting their support. Johnson lags behind but, according to the lists kept by those in the know, he’s still in second place with MPs (and he’s back from the Dominican Republic). In a twist we probably should have anticipated, according to one reporter, Tory members are pressuring their MPs to support Johnson, in some cases threatening them with deselection. Penny Mordaunt, currently in a pretty poor third place, is the first to say she’s standing. A lot could change over the weekend, though.

Screenshot of betting for Conservative leader at 2pm on 21 October 2022

FRIDAY’S POST. To be clear, after an early surge in support Thursday night, Boris Johnson has now settled to second-favourite to replace Liz Truss as leader with the bookmakers, behind his nemesis Rishi Sunak. The insiders tracking MPs’ support for the likely candidates also have Johnson second behind Sunak (Cautious Conservative Home, more gung-ho Guido Fawkes). Paul Goodman, grizzled observer of the party, says Johnson is unlikely to pass the nomination threshold. In case you were wondering, the best you’ll get on Oliver Dowden is 200-1 – and his odds are drifting. Save your money. He’s still firmly on and is apparently busy surveying MPs about their support for the former Chancellor. Meanwhile, our conscientious MP still has his head down and has been asking technical questions of the DCMS. Always fascinating to note that the ordinary business of Parliament goes on, no matter what else is happening.

As we often say here, we’re not insiders. We’re not in the torrid WhatsApp groups. We just watch the news like you do. So we can’t be sure that the Tories will embrace full Bungafication and appoint Johnson again. Some red wall MPs have convinced themselves only Johnson can save their seats. Members, ever divorced from reality, are obviously up for it. Donors seem keen too.

Boris Johnson is obviously not Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian tycoon’s rap sheet is a yard long, he’s a fraud and a serial abuser. He’s been expelled from and re-entered politics half a dozen times but, remarkably, he’s returning to government and he’s embroiled in another potentially career-ending scandal as we write.

But Johnson’s debt to the original political party animal is evident. His resilience in the face of scandal, his flexibility with regard to the truth and his jaw-dropping readiness to brazen out catastrophes political, legal and parental is pure Berlusconi. As is his style of ‘governing-as-campaigning’ – for leaders of the Berlusconi-Johnson variety, there’s no steady period of heads-down government between campaigns. It’s all-campaigning-all-the-time.

The Economist's cover for October 22 - 28 2022, with an illustration showing UK Prime Minister Liz Truss as Britannia holding huge fork loaded with spaghetti. The headline reads 'Welcome to Britaly'

We’re not the only ones to see the resemblance to Italian politics in the current crisis. The Economist’s latest cover is headed ‘Welcome to Britaly’ and the leader article finds a close resemblance to recent Italian history: “A country of political instability, low growth and subordination to the bond markets.” The Italians themselves are furious about the comparison, which they say is insulting (although it mostly seems to be the spaghetti they’re unhappy with). There are jokes about the insertion of a technocratic caretaker Prime Minister (remember when Merkel and the European Commission removed Berlusconi from power? Brexit took that option off the table). People are calling Jeremy Hunt ‘the British Mario Draghi‘.

Bringing Johnson back would surely complete the analogy. Buona fortuna Gran Bretagna!

Oliver and Rishi, down by the pool

In a fancy garden near here, the strange drama of the Conservative leadership contest approaches its climax

Last week, Rishi Sunak, currently trailing Liz Truss by 26 points in the contest that will produce a new leader of the Conservative Party (and, because of a mediaeval malfunction in the Parliamentary machinery, a Prime Minister too) was invited to visit the home of a wealthy Hertfordshire Conservative Councillor to speak to local party members.

Like a lot of what we’ve seen from around the country during the Tory leadership contest, the result is a kind of grim social comedy and very close to self-parody. The 100-odd Conservative members apparently present are out of shot. Artfully in shot is a sparkling swimming pool and, above it, a grand suburban villa.

How to discuss a scene like this, at a time when, according to one of the big energy companies, 50% of UK households are about to fall into fuel poverty? Absolutely no idea.

But it’s worth watching the video closely. It has a kind of anthropological value. We’re deep in the heartland of the Home Counties Tory elite here. On Sunak’s side of the pool, milling around, there’s a group of comfortable-looking Tory alpha males, including local grandees who’ve already secured a clutch of gongs and are thus in the home straight for a peerage whoever wins (you’ll have read about some of these guys in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column). There’s at least one of those white straw hats you see at cricket matches.

In this suburban garden we see a snapshot of the context for everything promised by the two candidates in the last couple of months. All the dog whistles about lazy workers, ‘our women‘, tax cuts, grammar schools, deporting refugees and so on are for this powerful audience of ultra-Tory comedy caricatures and not for the wider British electorate. At a more recent hustings, for instance, we learn that frontrunner – and serving Foreign Secretary – Liz Truss is happy to toss Britain’s historic alliance with our nearest continental neighbour into the wood-chipper to win their votes.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t expect some genuinely loopy policies once the winner is in place, of course, but what emerges in the Autumn will certainly bear little resemblance to what we’ve seen during the contest.

Anyway, back in the garden, the candidate is introduced by our own MP Oliver Dowden – also in line for a peerage, of course, for his service to a sequence of PMs – although we suspect he’s got a few more years in the trenches before he’s sent up (and perhaps some time in the wilderness of the back benches too, given his lamentable judgement in backing Sunak over Truss). Dowden says: “Rishi’s got the skills, he’s got the energy, he’s got the vision to fire up our economy and on to a brighter future…”

Sunak opens by connecting his own story to the aspirations of his audience:

And just as our country did something wonderful for my family I want to do the same for everyone, for your children and grandchildren and make sure they have the same fantastic opportunities too.

He has a three-part prescription:

But how are we going to do that? Well, we need to do three things. We need to restore trust, we need to rebuild the economy and we need to reunite our country.

Remember, there’s a week more of this stuff before the polls close and another few days before the results are in and we begin to see how our new Prime Minister responds to the building poly-crisis of energy prices, the highest inflation (and slowest growth) in the G7, a tough season of industrial action and a long recession.

Since this short video was made Sunak and Truss have surely both stood in front of at least half a dozen other sparkling pools. Any sign of the candidates getting together to plan a response to the Winter energy crisis yet? No. Just the Chancellor advising pensioners to turn the thermostat down a bit.

Thanks to the nice people at My Radlett News for the video, which is on their YouTube channel.

Green belt red alert

In the Tory leadership race, Team Rishi has deployed the ultimate THW (Tory Heartland Weapon) – the green belt – and Oliver Dowden is ready

Map of the green belt around London
Map of the London green belt

September 2022 update: turns out the green belt is still growing. The annual government numbers show that, after a break of about eight years, the green belt grew by 1.5% in the year 2021-22 (admittedly, all the growth was in the North of England). And, let’s be clear, if they were allowed, local authorities could build hundreds of thousands of decent, affordable homes in the green belt and it would make hardly any difference.

The green belt Is a 1930s invention – the product of Fabian paternalism and modern local government activism. It was a radical idea that limited speculative building, protected green space and parkland for working people and contributed to the dispersion of decent housing beyond the big cities. London is smaller as a result – the 20th Century sprawl that many thought inevitable was sharply foreclosed. London must one of the few capital cities in the world that looks roughly the same on a contemporary map as it did in the years after the First World War.

Communities on the both sides of the green belt continue to look out across fields and woods long after they might reasonably be expected to have been paved over. The London green belt is enormous – 135 square miles of land, substantially larger than London itself – and it’s got bigger over time. A big extension in the 1950s saw parts of the green belt pushed out to 35 miles from the centre of London.

It’s also, of course, an indefensible nonsense. An initially benign measure, intended to protect city dwellers from rampant development and small towns from being engulfed by the sprawl, has become a kind of Home Counties fortress – an impenetrable defensive shield for rural and suburban communities, almost exclusively in the South East of England (and almost exclusively Tory). It’s an irrational and uniquely selfish device, and almost unique in the world. The idea that valuable land, close to the economic centre of Britain, should be arbitrarily and permanently protected from use is eccentric at best, wicked at worst.

And as an idea it’s fantastically robust. In UK politics it’s essentially untouchable. Over the decades legislation has been reinforced, protections hardened. London’s green belt has grown (and there are now green belts around other English cities). Perfectly sane measures to shrink or amend the green belt have been blocked and politicians who embrace reform always come to regret it. Most won’t touch it with a barge pole.

And, of course, those of us who live by the Green Belt love it – and we’ll expend enormous amounts of energy to defend it – inventing justifications for its permanent protection, most perfectly valid. It’s a ‘green lung‘, it contributes to ‘ecosystem services‘, it’s a corridor for wildlife, it offers various magical protections for the health and happiness of both city dwellers and those on the other side of the moat. We put up signs in our front gardens, attend public meetings and sign petitions. And who can blame us? The green belt has underpinned the value of our homes for decades and contributes to the wellbeing of our families. We can’t think of a good reason to touch it.

An industry of well-funded think tanks, lobby groups, trusts and protest groups has emerged, especially since the 1950s. There’s a Parliamentary All-Party Group on the green belt, of course. A fabulously dense defensive architecture has been retrospectively erected around the idea of the green belt – connecting it with various other big issues – the agriculture lobby, rural landowners, the hospitality and leisure industries, the green lobby – all have joined the defense of the green belt from time to time. For columnists and conservative opinion formers it’s practically sacred.

The builders and developers who want to liberate the green belt don’t help their case much, either. What they put up in the places they are allowed to build is almost always horrible – opportunistic, lowest-common-denominator housing squeezed onto inappropriate plots, speculative commercial developments that blight town centres. Estates dumped in inaccessible locations (or on flood plains). And, inevitably, they take every opportunity to avoid their affordable housing obligations.

It’s hard to argue that rolling farmland, woodlands and parks are not worth defending – the green belt protects some of England’s most precious countryside: Epping Forest, the Surrey Hills, the Chilterns. As you’d expect, the largely suburban and rural electorate in the Conservative Party leadership contest is very much on-side. This explains why the collapsing NHS, booming child poverty and the climate emergency are barely on the policy agenda but the green belt very much is.

Oliver Dowden’s green belt intervention is a long piece in support of Rishi Sunak in the Telegraph. There’s nothing to see here, really. It’s what you’d expect from an MP with a track record of privet hedge bothering but it’s full of Tory membership dog whistles carefully calibrated for his electorate:

Mr Sunak said town halls will be encouraged to regenerate industrial land and he will strengthen policy to encourage the building of much denser housing in inner-city areas.

Oliver Dowden, Daily Telegraph, 27 July 2022

We’re sure the people of these inner-city areas (perhaps the same ones Rishi was cannily able to divert funds away from while Chancellor) will be thrilled to learn that his plan means the land around them will be built on at much higher density. The word ‘brownfield’, which, of course, is a euphemism for ‘not a Tory constituency’ is used ten times.

For my constituents in Hertfordshire and those in neighbouring seats, the fear of losing this belt of fresh air, open space and countryside is raw and real, and as party chairman I saw the Liberal Democrats constantly seek to play on that fear in Conservative held seats around the country.

As ‘raw and real’ as the prospect of falling into poverty or destitution when the energy bills come in this Winter?

Where communities do not want development, it must not be permitted to go ahead. Overzealous planning inspectors must have their wings clipped. It is local people, not bureaucrats, that should take decisions on the preservation of our countryside…

Planning inspectors must be fed up with the rollercoaster of affection and approbation they experience. They’re saints when they deny applications for green belt projects and unredeemable sinners when they permit them.

Mr Dowden has almost certainly picked the wrong side in this fight but he’s honourable enough not to have jumped ship and he has to hope that his track record as a muscular defender of single-sex toilets and colonial streetnames will win him favour in the Truss camp in September. Certainly jumping to the defence of the green belt can’t possibly have done him any harm.

Keeping busy

You have to wonder what a former party Co-Chairman gets up to during a turbulent time like this

Oliver Dowden's social media endorsement of Rishi Sunak. The text reads: "Rishi is the best person to lead our country and unquestionably the best person to beat Labour. That's why I'm backing him to be our next Prime Minister. Ready for Rishi
Dowden’s tweet in support of Rishi was one of the first, on 8 July. It’s exactly the same as all the others because it was provided by the super-organised Sunak campaign team.

He’s ready for Rishi. You already knew this. Oliver Dowden’s social media is saturated with Sunak endorsements. If there’s no Ministerial role for our MP in September it’ll be because the other weirdo won. Sunak may be weird but if you rose during the Cameron era like Dowden, he probably looks like the nearest the Conservative Party has to a normal human being right now – the anti-chaos candidate (but wait until Dowden hears about Sunak’s actual policies – don’t think our privet hedge guy is ready for ‘Charter Cities‘).

He ‘wielded the knife’. Johnson loyalists are making a list of MPs they think were instrumental in the Prime Minister’s fall. Dowden may have missed the Pinchergate action but he’s right at the top of the list anyway. Andrew Pierce, in his breathless Johnson panegyric in the Mail says “News of his resignation came through when the PM was in Rwanda. Boris knew immediately that Dowden had planned it in advance.”

He’s mixed up in a complicated anti-semitism scandal. We don’t pretend to understand this case but if you’re a local democracy nerd you may remember that back in April a QC-led internal Conservative Party inquiry into the abuse of a Jewish Labour Party candidate standing in Hertsmere concluded with reprimands for four Conservative Councillors and a local Agent for ‘enabling anti-semitism’. Jewish News quoted the findings, saying the five accused Conservatives were “party to a personal campaign against the claimant in relation to the 2020 by-election, and which continued for many months.”

A cutting from Private Eye magazine No. 1577, 15 July - 28 July2022
From Private Eye 15-28 July 2022

According to Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column (which keeps an eye on local authority malfeasance), the Conservative Party’s disciplinary code was changed after the inquiry’s verdict to permit the reprimanded members to challenge their punishment. The Eye’s assumption is that, as Co-Chairman of the Party at the time, Dowden would likely have been well aware of these changes. Apparently the appeals lodged by the party members are ongoing.

Whither Dowden?

Our MP was way out in front with his resignation from the Johnson government and may have been plotting against the PM for a while

It seems like a long time ago but it’s actually only a month since Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, resigned as Conservative Party Co-Chairman. And you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t actually Pinchergate – the most recent crisis of Boris Johnson’s leadership – that induced his departure; it was the previous one – the catastrophic 23 June double byelection loss in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.

Dowden’s resignation letter was a shock at the time and seemed out of character for such a loyal soldier: a short and blunt critique of the Prime Minister, out of the blue – “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility…” A few weeks on it seems like a relatively mild intervention and, of course, it was only a preview of a flood of over 60 letters, sent by ministers and advisers and PPSs, in the three days between 5 and 7 July, once Johnson had provided the final push by trying to defend his terrible friend Pincher.

And we’ve all already forgotten the gossip that Dowden had been plotting with his old boss David Cameron (in an ‘elite Mayfair club’ natch) to ‘destabilise’ Boris Johnson after the catastrophic May local elections.

The flurry of letters – the largest number of resignations submitted in a single day in party history – was a hyper-modern, social media affair. Almost all of them were published exclusively on Twitter – and there was some entertainment. Some were unreadable, some weren’t even letters, just hurried tweets or Facebook posts (we do wonder who archives all this official correspondence). Some were written up by local reporters. Some came very very soon after their senders had replaced resigning ministers (Michelle Donelan was Education Minister for 35 hours and has promised to return her Ministerial redundancy money). Liam Fox managed to resign even though he hasn’t been a minister for years and recently appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi hedged his bets by carefully sending a strongly-worded letter addressed to no one that wasn’t actually a resignation (and he’s consequently still in his job).

Meanwhile, Dowden came out for Rishi Sunak on 8 July, right at the beginning of the process, sharing the boilerplate social media endorsement given to him by Rishi’s team.

Oliver Dowden's social media endorsement of Rishi Sunak. The text reads: "Rishi is the best person to lead our country and unquestionably the best person to beat Labour. That's why I'm backing him to be our next Prime Minister. Ready for Rishi
Oliver Dowden’s social media endorsement of Rishi Sunak

Dowden’s support for Sunak is not surprising. The former Chancellor seems to be the closest of the two surviving leadership candidates to the outlook of the pre-Johnson, pre-populist, pre-chaos administration of Theresa May – the panicky interregnum in which Sunak first saw office – and to the seemingly unending nightmare of the Cameron years in which Dowden did. Our MP’s journey – from Cameroonian moderniser to Johnsonite Culture Wars enforcer always seemed an uncomfortable one. Perhaps in supporting Sunak he is rejoining the Tory mainstream.