With the Tories plunging in the polls, the latest Electoral Calculus figures suggest they could lose 11 MPs across East Anglia: Colchester, Hemel Hempstead, Hitchin and Harpenden, Ipswich, Norwich North, Peterborough, Rochford and Southend East, Stevenage, Thurrock, Watford, and Welwyn Hatfield.
One of East Anglia’s most prominent and best connected political commentators is Paul Geater of the East Anglian Daily Times. Mr Geater is a man of wisdom, after many years spent scrubbing the decks of local politics. From this position it is little wonder that he keeps his ear to the ground. So it is worthwhile noting that, in his column this week, our grizzled veteran muses on whether this might be Boris Johnson’s last week in No.10. Mr Geater is not given to throwing caution to the winds, or anywhere else. So was he being reckless – most unlike him – or Does He Know Something? If so, it would not be the first time.
It would seem that, even if things are not quite as bad for Johnson as Mr Geater suggests, they soon will be. It is not surprising, however, that Ipswich Council’s Conservative group leader Ian Fisher begs to differ. He challenged journalists on Twitter to go canvassing with him, “to see what the public really think” about Johnson. My colleague Peter Thurlow snapped up the invitation, but was to be disappointed. He was turned down, “like a bedspread,” as Bertie Wooster would have said.
“Why would you think it would extend to you?” demanded Fisher, who styles himself on Twitter as Crusader Ian. “You are the author of some of the most biased journalism I’ve seen yet you pretend it’s balanced reporting.”
Our man Thurlow was abashed and had to be consoled with several pints at the Muckrakers Arms.
Meanwhile, one of Mr Fisher’s colleagues on Ipswich Council and a long time sparring partner of Mr Geater, Ms Nadia Cenci, explained to Pecksniff that the words she uses in argument do not necessarily match their dictionary definitions. The word in question was ‘woke’, which she uses as an insult and indulges in it promiscuously. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means:
“Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”
But Ms Cenci explains dismissively: “Sorry that’s not how I and many others use it now”. So it seems she is an aficionada of Alice in Wonderland:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
We should be grateful to Stoke Park’s very own Humpty Dumpty for explaining so much of what Tory politicians say. Whatever the promises they seem to ignore, they have only been broken if, naively, we choose them to mean whatever the Oxford English suggests they mean. “I knew nothing about any parties” is only a lie if it is understood according to dictionary definition. Likewise “I always follow the ministerial code”.
James Duddridge (Conservative, Rochford and Southend East) is one of those MPs who even most of his Southend voters have never heard of, but he is making his bid for recognition. Word has it that he may be one of the whips in Boris Johnson’s campaign to remain as Prime Minister. Now as it happens, his seat is one of those at risk at the next general election, according to the latest polls, (see Pecksniff’s opening story). It is fascinating to think that he presumably believes hanging on to Johnson’s coat tails is his best chance of keeping it.
Imagine the plight of Liz Truss MP (Conservative, South West Norfolk). For some time she has seen herself as future prime ministerial material, and hardly an outing has not been celebrated by pictures of Truss riding in a tank, Truss posing with some foreign potentate, Truss astride a camel, all to inspire a sense of gravitas in a future prime minister. (Maintaining a sense of gravitas whilst astride a camel can be a difficult feat, As Ms Truss has demonstrated.)
Now, with Johnson about to topple, Truss finds herself on an official visit to Australia, stuck on the other side of the world being pictured with marsupials when her ambition needs her here. The plotting is already under way, the knives are out. Our heroine is at the mercy of her rivals. What if they are planning new UK Covid travel restrictions to keep her cooped up in a Travelodge outside Slough until the excitement is over? It is said that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have already come up with a deal to squeeze Truss off the ballot paper. Don’t be surprised if having the foreign secretary eating breakfast out of a cellophane packet and doing her best to zoom in and look prime ministerial with a back drop of a lorry park proves to be high on their to-do list.
Our imperious Home Secretary Priti Patel MP (Conservative, Witham) has been at it again. She is another who sees Johnson about to topple and her own hopes of being Prime Minister topple with him. So she becomes increasingly desperate for the right kind of headlines. The Home Office has long been considered the graveyard for aspiring Tory politicians, because its incumbent can never be strict enough or heartless enough within the bounds of decency to placate the bloodlust among the members.
Decency however has never much concerned Patel, nor competence or any awareness of how the world works, come to that. Not long ago she declared that refugees fleeing across the Channel would be returned to France. But she had not thought to mention it to the French, who as Ms Patel should realize are quite keen to control their own borders.
But now she is doing it again, only this time the lucky recipients of Britain’s unwanted refugees was to be Ghana. She hadn’t told them either that she was planning to ship out plane loads of refugees, presumably to be dumped on the tarmac at Accra airport. So imagine her chagrin when the Ghana Ministry of Foreign Affairs took umbrage. There is no public record of quite what they said to Patel, but they issued a press release and distributed it to the world’s media:
And speaking of Patel, The Big Issue reports that staff at the Home Office held a party during lockdown on 24 March last year, only days after a man in Warwickshire was fined £100 for sitting in his garden with friends. The prosecco party was to celebrate that Priti Patel’s initiative in turning back refugees had made the BBC’s Six O’Clock News….
Recently Pecksniff reported the views of Dan Poulter MP (Conservative, Central Suffolk), that if the Prime minister were to be found knowingly to have allowed or attended parties, then his position would become untenable. But, as Pecksniff pointed out, he made no comment about resignation. This was an issue your correspondent brought up with Poulter’s political adviser only last week, after Johnson’s disastrous Commons performance, but it seems Dr Poulter was not playing that game.
But things move on, and it seems Dr Poulter’s views are hardening. This week he told a constituent: “Should the Prime Minister be found to have deliberately lied to Parliament or if he faces criminal sanction (or both) then I believe his position becomes untenable and he should resign.”
It was depressing though utterly predictable to see the Trotskyists blagging ownership of the Kill the Bill protest in Cambridge last Saturday. It was under the banner of the Stop the War Coalition, a front for the Socialist Workers Party. To Pecksniff’s certain knowledge they have been using the same tactic for more than 50 years, leeching on to any popular left wing cause and then taking over. Of all the left wing groups, the SWP are the most hypocritical and narrow minded political bigots. The left will never gain the upper hand until it finds the courage to differentiate between those who genuinely want a better life for people and those who simply want to take over the world.
Whatever the leadership of the main opposition parties say about the prospect of a progressive alliance between the parties to beat the Tories, on the ground there are signs of movement. The latest stirrings seem to be in Hertfordshire, and in particular in Hitchin and Harpenden. The constituency’s first MP was the execrable Peter Lilley, since replaced by Bim Afolami, another Old Etonian.
Afolami inherited a majority of 20,000 at the 2017 general election, in which Labour came second and increased the party’s vote by 12%.
But in 2019 it was the Liberal Democrats who increased their vote share by 25% to take second place and reduce Afolami’s majority to under 7,000. It is understood that the increasingly nationalist stance of the Tory party helped fracture the Tory vote there. Now it is one of the Liberal Democrats’ target seats. There are rumours that the local parties may be able to come to some arrangement, in which case and given the parlous state of the Tories, this is one seat in which a progressive alliance could make the difference.
More from East Anglia Bylines
Mr Afolami is an interesting peripheral figure, though probably not as interesting as he would like. He was appointed parliamentary private secretary to Liz Truss, until in November he was critical of the government’s sleaze response. It was seen as a clumsy attempt to promote the ambitions of his boss. No.10 were “furious” and Truss was publicly embarrassed at his indiscretion. She sacked him and apparently described him as a “liability”.
He was demoted, moving instead to become PPS to Nadine Dorries at Culture, where indiscretion, embarrassment and being a liability are considered a perfect match.
But he still harbours ambitions of his own and is likely to back one of the candidates to replace Johnson. Pecksniff’s information is that he will want to keep his image as a moderate, and could back Sunak, Truss or Hunt.
But another figure to whom Afolami is thought to be close is Matt Hancock. It is unlikely that even Hancock will have the gall to have his own name put forward as a candidate. But he is well versed in becoming another’s creature to boost his profile, and it is quite likely that he will use backing one of the candidates to try to squirm his way back into government.
Then right on cue, here is the boy Matt Hancock on manoeuvres again. He is quoted in the press as being concerned about Suffolk and the health of its people. There must be a leadership election in the offing. Mr Hancock has never been known to speak to his local media except when it serves his own interests, and his sudden and unexpected interest in Suffolk can mean only one thing. He sees himself as a Warwick the Kingmaker de nos jours. He wants to be the power who puts somebody into No.10.
Aigars Balsevics, the former mayor of Wisbech, has featured in Pecksniff’s Diary twice before, regarding breaking Covid regulations. Now he has been arrested and charged with rape. He has subsequently been suspended by the local Tory party.
The ructions in the Tory party are, it seems, breaking out across the region. The party has lost two of its members on Central Bedfordshire Council. The Tories still hold control, but Councillors Steven Watkins and Nicola Harris have resigned the party whip. Councillor Harris represents Stotfold and Langford, and will in future sit as an independent. She explains:
“The phrase ‘toeing the party line’ is commonly used and unfortunately is a very accurate way to describe what’s currently expected of a party member. A Conservative councillor is expected and required to vote with the party on any matters, even if they feel it’s not in the interest of the local community.
“The party puts self-interest ahead of anything else, and this is not something I can agree to. Within the local Conservative group, this culture means an elected representative is penalised if they don’t accept the party line, even when they don’t agree with it.
“This is clearly not in the best interest of the local community. Neither is this what democracy is about, and the party I was once proud to represent has become an embarrassment.”
We end with yet another complimentary story about a Tory politician. A reader wrote to Lord Deben, formerly John Gummer, who was Tory MP for Suffolk Coastal for many years and a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. The issue was the government’s bill to ban noisy demonstrations. Deben replied:
“I spoke to make the case against the ‘noise’ proposal and voted against the key proposals as I agreed with your sentiments.”