A remarkable new poll turned up in the Daily Telegraph this week. It was remarkable not for its findings, which were that the government is likely to be handed its cul sur le plat at the next election, in keeping with all other recent poll results. The size of the poll, with 14,000 respondents, was fairly remarkable, true, but it is the source of the research which really caused eyebrows to rise. It was commissioned by somebody calling themselves the Conservative Britain Alliance. Now, why would a Conservative organisation wish to bring down its own government?
Nobody had ever heard of the Alliance, from which we might jump to the conclusion that it was a made-up name for a one-off project: to embarrass the government. The most contentious policy in the news is of asylum seekers and Rwanda, and there was a major revolt of Tory MPs on the right. Might not the timing of the poll, and its release exclusively through the party’s house newspaper, be part of a plan to put pressure on the Rwanda bill? Not to drop it, but (as the malcontents would have it) to reinforce it.
If so, it was a naïve manoeuvre. Rishi Sunak and his government couldn’t do what the objectors wanted, because all evidence suggests the further towards the lunatic right he leans, the more the polls lurch to the left.
What would all those Tory grandees of yore make of their present contemporaries, going through the lobbies in so proud a declaration that they want their government to break the law over Rwanda? There were times when the Conservative Party took its international obligations seriously – MPs in darker times who understood the importance of respecting the law, and of Britain’s proudly upholding it.
But everything the rebels believe in is under threat and has been condensed into one “batshit” idea, as James Cleverly (Braintree) calls it, while still pretending to try to make it work. Britain’s asylum seekers must be flown to Rwanda. Even when the government admits that it can only send 1% of them at a cost of £169,000 per asylum seeker. Even when the Rwandan immigration process turns away three out of four applicants – presumably to where they just arrived from. Even when Rwanda makes clear it will have no truck with breaking international law, which the scheme most certainly would.
Because they can’t afford to listen. They have their fingers in their ears. This is the only thing left to them, and it is about to fail utterly.
One of the ways James Cleverly is trying to make the Rwanda policy work is by falsifying the figures. His Home Office was rebuked on Thursday by the UK Statistics Authority for producing misleading data. Yet another blatant lie by the government: so what? The significance here is that the claims were made by the prime minister just after new year: if those figures didn’t exist, which it is confirmed they didn’t, then he must have been involved in making them up. He and Mr Cleverly putting their heads together deliberately to come up with a way of duping the electorate. This time it’s Fishy Rishi.
Among the original Tory rebels who blinked was Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden), who is quoted in The Times as saying the bill “did not go far enough”.
She didn’t join the rebels in their lobby, but then she is in a difficult position. She has serious backers as party leader once Rishi Sunak is defenestrated, and regicide is considered terribly bad form in the Conservative Party. Knifing Mr Sunak might well cause wrinkled noses among the membership, for all they dislike him.
But five of the region’s MPs were among the 40 who did vote for the rebel amendment: Paul Bristow (Peterborough), James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East), Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford), Tom Hunt (Ipswich) and Liz Truss (SW Norfolk).
In the end of course the revolt by the right wing collapsed, as it always does. Paper soldiers, all mouth and no trousers, having done perhaps irreparable harm to their party.
Geography has often never been the strong point of many Conservative MPs. (Who can forget Liz Truss confusing the Baltic with the Balkans and threatening to send British troops to the wrong country, nearly causing a diplomatic incident with the states of the former Yugoslavia. It is sometimes believed that this curious inability explains why so many of them find it difficult getting back to their constituencies more often.
This trait was in evidence again this week. Among those present during the chaos of the Rwanda vote was Théreèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), as combative as ever and as bereft of any knowledge of geography as many of her colleagues. Keen to make a dent in the confident display of Yvette Cooper, Dr Coffey claimed triumphantly that the woman was talking about the wrong country! “You can’t even get the name of the country right!” she declared. Ms Cooper had mentioned not Rwanda, but Kigali!
Kigali is of course the capital of Rwanda.
As Punch would have said: “Collapse of stout party”.
Now it so happens that Kemi Badenoch and Liz Truss both featured in another story this week, one which is really so Truss-like. Ms Truss made quite a splash when she visited Taiwan on a speaking tour, promising “solidarity with the Taiwanese people” and seemingly trying to inflame China sufficiently to provoke World War Three. She sees great advantage in being seen as a leading anti-China hawk, since that’s where the money is.
However, in August last year, it turns out Ms Truss was also privately lobbying the business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch to expedite the sale of defence equipment… er, to China. The equipment is produced by a company in her constituency and is used for the disposal of land mines. The government had blocked it because it could be used in an invasion of Taiwan.
The Telegraph were the bearers of further bad news this week, and again it involved the opinion polls. This one reveals that Labour is more popular in rural areas than the Tories, by 34% to 30%, and warns that “a Portillo moment is possible anywhere”.
Labour has joked about how they will “park our tanks on the Tories’ fields”. For many in places like rural Suffolk, the disgrace of not voting Tory would be the equivalent of committing indecent exposure. But very slowly, things are changing. The MPs notice it too and are becoming worried. This weekend there is to be a village event in your correspondent’s constituency of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, where the MP is Dan Poulter. It is usual for him to promise to turn up, but not appear. Only this time he has really really promised to turn up.
No wonder Dan Poulter is looking to his laurels, though one wonders quite whether the Reform Party is likely to give him much trouble in Central Suffolk. Their candidate has been sending out this curious picture on social media. But my dears, what on earth is going on in it?
The man on the right – the one with three arms – appears to have lost a contact lens. The middle one is horrified at hearing Nigel Farage has expressed a desire to become a woman, and on the left their colleague is adjusting his toupee. Quite how this relates to the Reform Party is not clear. Perhaps it is intended to suggest this is the party for bald and short-sighted transphobics. We must hope the candidate, Michael ‘Three Hands’ Hallatt (as no doubt his colleagues call him) will take the trouble to explain.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) is the cheeky chappie who can’t quite believe how they have all fallen for his shtick, and he can’t stop bragging about it. Discretion isn’t his style.
When you hold a position of no account, like being chair of the Conservative Party, that doesn’t matter. But as secretary of state for defence, discretion tends to be expected, even in these days when the term has become somewhat downgraded. (As Peter Ustinov remarked, a diplomat has become nothing more than a head waiter who is allowed to sit down occasionally.)
So when there is a planned air strike on Houthi rebels and lives are at stake, what our American partners least want is for Mr Shapps to go through his nudge-nudge wink-wink routine of “I’ve got a secret!”
They were not amused, and political and diplomatic channels apparently dried up before and during the action. Embarrassing. Only, Mr Shapps doesn’t do embarrassing.
It is not known what words might have passed between Rishi Sunak and his defence secretary, let alone between Mr Sunak and the president.
There will be those frustrated readers who fear we haven’t heard enough yet of Tom Hunt (Ipswich). But fear not: this week we have a splendid example of that young scamp at his finest. Last May, he announced with a flourish that he was personally pushing a new bill through the Commons, on behalf of all those Ipswich residents whose properties had been made uninhabitable by poor cladding. It would “bring in a legally binding Code of Practice to ensure that what happened at St Francis Tower never happens again, and different freeholders and agents that behave appallingly are held to account”.
Apparently, he added that the next reading of the bill would be during last November.
Because rather than lobby and argue and cajole and in some way persuade the government and Commons authorities to take the plight of his constituents seriously, all Mr Hunt had done was fill in a form. The bill in question was a ‘Ten-Minute Rule Bill’, which is never intended to be enacted and never given Commons time. It’s just a way for an MP to let off steam – probably to an empty chamber. It will never go anywhere, and indeed the Parliament website confirms that it hasn’t.
Mr Hunt will have known this perfectly well, of course, so for all his blather about how he wanted it not to be “a flimsy document that can be ignored”, that is just what it was, and all it could ever be. As he was aware when he so cruelly misled those constituents.
We are all polls this week, dear reader. This one involves Nigel Farage, and the claim that he could take Clacton for the Reform Party if he should stand there against the Conservatives. The poll suggests Mr Farage would hold a ten point lead over present MP Giles Watling. There are claims that Tory voters deserting to Reform could cost the Conservatives ten seats, though only by splitting the vote. Reform will not win a seat, unless it is through the dream team of Nigel Farage and Clacton-on-Sea.
It has been characteristic of Conservative-controlled councils over the past couple of years to follow the example of their government and avoid public scrutiny of their work, often quite blatantly. The latest example comes from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.
It seems that the council was traditionally non-political, until May last year. There are apparently allegations of fraud, suspension of the town clerk, and plans to sell off the community centre. Then at a public meeting on Tuesday evening, the public were evicted and the police were called. There were cries of “Shame!” and demands for resignations. When the public had been safely seen off the premises by the police, the council then set a budget behind closed doors. That alone has brought complaints to the monitoring officer, since it is not legal to do so.
We shall hear more about Leigh Town Council.
Thanks go to Jess Knopp, Karl Whiteman and Neil Murphy.