From the silence on social media, you might not know that the Conservative Party has just held its Spring Forum. I expected to see lots of clips of stirring highlights and favourite snippets from the various panel discussions, but apart from the Prime Minister’s keynote address and a speech by party chair Amanda Milling, it’s all quiet on the Tory front. A case of “what happens at Spring Forum, stays at Spring Forum”? Or perhaps there’s a period of exclusivity when only members (and journalists) can view the content?
This is unfortunate, because it deprives the public of a twenty-minute interview of the Prime Minister Alexander Johnson by Lord Richard Sharp of Epsom, which was fascinating on so many levels.
Mea culpa, the first thing that struck me was something banal and superficial: the décor. The set had a backdrop of white shapes on Tory blue, in a design that resembled a cheap knock-off of a Laura Ashley classic. It was bracketed by two giant, obligatory Union Flags – just in case that windowless room meant that the Prime Minister forgot what country he was in. The furniture looked like tacky, assemble-it-yourself, all-purpose office wear. Not built to last.
I found myself wondering if this was being shot in the studio N°10 has spent £2.9 million of taxpayers’ money kitting out, by a Russian firm, because of course no British firm could possibly have done it. (Insert irony emoji here…) If that set was indeed in the Number Ten studio, all I can say is: “we woz robbed”.
Lord Sharp began by thanking Johnson for all the work he has done. “No, thank you,” came the reply, and we were off with a few minutes of mutual congratulation. We all need someone who talks to us with such unconditional, near breathless adoration as Lord Sharp showered on the Prime Minister.
Then suddenly Lord Sharp broke off to express his hope that nobody at home was watching, because they should all be out campaigning for the local elections. Perhaps he wanted these precious moments with Johnson all to himself?
After some bizarre comments about farmers thumping tables with their big hands in grateful appreciation of better-quality broadband, Johnson then went on to say that there was something bigger than infrastructure policies, and that was the values and beliefs the party offers. We were straying into cult and culture wars territory. But first the Prime Minister would try to convince us that the Tory party was the party of the victim, especially women, by bashing the very people who ensure we have a court system that is the envy of the world: the legal profession.
“You know, we are, we are, we are the party, when all is said and done, that is on the side of the victim and the public and not the side the criminal and the criminal lawyers. We’re, we believe in, I’m afraid, in tough sentences for people who commit serious sexual and violent offences. We’re the party, we believe in, in, we believe in locking them up for longer.”
Hmm. Try telling that to one of the 98.5 per cent of victims of rape whose rapist was not even charged, let alone convicted. Or the women whose lives are made a misery by stalking, but whose tormentors would receive a lower sentence than a fly-tipper. Or the female victims of hate crime who read the notes to the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and see that they’re at best an afterthought: statues are mentioned eight times, while they’re not even mentioned once. Tougher sentences only help if criminals are charged and convicted.
It’s as if the Tories are only looking at the thin layer of snow on the summit, and ignoring the entire mountain underneath. In this analogy the snow is sentencing, while the mountain represents myriad factors that inhibit justice, such as:
- the reluctance of victims to come forward;
- the unwillingness/lack of capacity of police to investigate certain crimes;
- an evidence system that favours the criminal over the victim;
- a huge backlog of cases in courts, and
- societal factors that lead to the committing of crime in the first place.
Telling us that tougher sentencing wards off crime is the modern-day Conservative Party equivalent of selling us garlic to ward off evil. The truth is, the safety of women and girls is an afterthought to this government, and that truth is out now, so it just rubs salt in the wounds when MPs try to spin it as otherwise.
As for lumping criminal lawyers in with criminals, that is a new low from the Prime Minister. We’ve already seen it, with Priti Patel spitting venom at “activist lawyers” – a jibe that inspired a man to force his way into a legal practice, armed with a knife, with the intent to take life.
Johnson’s comment calls into question the entire basis of our criminal justice system. Is he rejecting the ideas of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘everyone has the right to defend themselves’? Shall we do away with courts and lawyers next, and just have tabloid lynchings instead in his brave new Brexit Britain?
“But I think what we– what we want to do is get this country somehow to believe in its cultural traditions, its history, again, in a way that I think sometimes we seem to be a bit embarrassed about—”
Here was Johnson changing tack, laying the ground for the primary policy of this government: culture war.
“I don’t think we are on that side of the argument, are we?” interrupted Lord Sharp.
“No, we’re on the side. We’re on the side. So we’re on the- we’re pro-statue.”
“We have flags—”
“Yeah, we do.”
“And we’re not embarrassed about it, are we, Prime Minister?”
“No, we’re not. No, I mean…”
“I’m actually quite proud about it.”
“Yeah, we could have loads of other flags, too. We could have the Scottish flag, you know, the Saltire. We can have the Saltire, the Saltire, and the, and the Welsh dragon. We can have everything. And, but, but, you know, I’m all in favour of flags. By the way, we can have the Council of Europe flag too. We’re members of the Council of Europe, which happens to have twelve stars, but never mind. There you go. You know, Nicola Sturgeon, Nicola Sturgeon continues to fly it, even though we’ve left the EU. Um. We could have all sorts of flags.”
I’ve typed out a full transcript of that section of the interview, because it seems from the video clip that whatever poor intern was responsible for doing the subtitles had lost the will to live at that stage. (Nor could they spell ‘Saltire’.) Too many mumbled unfinished sentences with sudden flashes of vehemence when Johnson remembered the talking points his Head of Coms had fed him.
I was in despair that it was the ostentatious display of the flag, rather than the unremitting defence of the values it stands for, that was considered to be a source of national pride.
My ears perked up at the mention of the Council of Europe. Many get it muddled up with an EU body, but it is nothing to do with the EU and indeed pre-dates it. Founded in 1949, with the UK a founder member, it consists of 47 European countries and is our Continent’s foremost human rights organisation. People will of course have heard of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was principally drafted by British lawyers and is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights. But possibly they only hear of it in a negative sense, since the Conservative Party loves to bash that too.
During the 2016 referendum, there was much criticism on the Leave side of the EU having a flag and anthem (even though other trade bodies like the Commonwealth also have flags). Johnson and others let them think this, when in fact the EU does not have a flag or anthem of its own, but instead uses that of the Council of Europe as an act of respect and homage to the work it does. I was encouraged that Johnson said we could fly the flag of the Council of Europe, only to be disappointed a nano-second later when he made a veiled criticism of Nicola Sturgeon for doing just that with the phrase “even though we’ve left the EU.” Old habits of deliberately conflating the Council of Europe with the European Union die hard, it seems.
“But, so I’m in favour of our culture and our history and I don’t want to see pointless mutilation of our landscape by a bunch of politically correct leftist committees, which is what, you know, Starmerism seems to be— only thing I can, you know, basically he’s been— Labour is soft on criminals, hopeless on the economy and pathetic on our national culture and traditions.”
“They don’t like a hair shirt, Prime Minister, they really don’t.”
An interesting admission there by the Prime Minister that he disdains democratic processes that determine what artworks should or shouldn’t adorn our public spaces. Any committee that doesn’t reach a decision that he can agree with must be “leftist”, and by implication, not worthy of respect. This is childish and despotic.
While Johnson continued his Starmer/Labour bashing, I admit to getting somewhat lost in Lord Sharp’s comment about hair shirts. What on earth did he mean by it? Must new MPs wear one as some sort of secret initiation ceremony? Is it a kinky fetish that he and Johnson share? Or some sort of Tory Toff Establishment in-joke?
My mind left off its meanderings just in time to hear Johnson set out his stall for unionism. This principally consisted of “sticking up for the union”.
“This is a family of nations that works well together. And it’s a triumph. It’s an absolute triumph. Why would you muck it up? Why would you break it up? It would be a disaster for the whole of— for all of us.”
After Brexit, no politician who backed or enabled Brexit in any way can say something like that with a shred of credibility, least of all Johnson, and he appeared to know it. He quickly retreated to safer ground with talk of the Scottish contribution to the fight against Covid-19, his recent visit to Livingston, and how the vaccine programme was “the physical incarnation of the union”.
I’m almost embarrassed to tell you how the interview ended, it was so cringe-inducing. Lord Sharp asked if on June 21st, the day we are scheduled to be fully out of lockdown, we could have a bank holiday called ‘national hangover day’. Johnson, who by this time was looking as if for him every day was national hangover day, replied that “people have had quite a few days off…”
At a stroke, he devalued all the hard work people had done from home during lockdown. Some of us, with no support or income, have carried on in workaholic mode, because that’s what we do. It is clearly something that this PM, with his love of naps during peak office hours, and old-fashioned opinion that only work performed in an office counts as ‘real’ work, will never comprehend.
And that was it. Twenty minutes of waffle, smug superiority and casual offensiveness was over. What a time to be alive. I can’t think why the party hasn’t released it to the unsuspecting public.