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The Spectator's Notes

The Tories are Boris Johnson’s Conservatives now

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

How much does Boris Johnson’s move to an early election resemble Mrs May’s disastrous one in 2017? In two important respects, not at all. He had to call an election because of the numbers in parliament: she did not. Voters understand this. He is also a born campaigner, while she — well, no more need be said. But there is a possible similarity between the two situations. In 2017, the manifesto described the Tories as ‘Theresa May’s Conservatives’. All the eggs were in her basket. It feels as if the Tories will be ‘Boris Johnson’s Conservatives’ this time, though no doubt that phrase won’t be in the manifesto. Whenever Boris is seen to falter or err, voters will then ask ‘Who are the Conservatives? Do I like them?’, questions which go well beyond Brexit. On present showing, the answer to the first is all too often ‘Not sure’ and to the second, ‘No’. There is much work to do.

Philip Hammond told the Today programme on Tuesday that he was ‘agonising’ over whether he should advocate a Conservative vote at the coming election. ‘It really doesn’t matter how many times my party kicks me, abuses me, reviles me,’ he went on, sounding like Jesus, ‘they’re not going to stop me feeling like a Conservative.’ Obviously Mr Hammond has a right to ‘feel like a Conservative’, but is that the relevant point? He reached the pinnacle of his career by becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer just after the 2016 referendum vote for Leave. From his first day in office, he saw it as his task to frustrate that vote, trying, chiefly by covert means, to keep Britain in the Customs Union. In 2017, he fought the general election on a manifesto which declared that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’; but was all the while working tirelessly for a bad deal. He used the second most important job in government to make government impossible. Perhaps he should go away and feel like a Conservative somewhere else.

In Britain, the struggle for Catalan independence gets a much too uncritical press. It is an arrogant thing to try to break up a country, especially when your methods are illegal. The recent prison sentences for some of the separatist leaders provoked violent riots in Barcelona, but they were tried with due process by the Supreme Court, and indeed the more serious charge of ‘rebellion’ was not sustained. The leaders went down for ‘sedition’ and embezzlement of public funds. It seems that more and more Catalans are fed up with nationalism. There have been counter-demonstrations, and polls show that the main Catalan independence movement, the Junts X Cat (its abbreviated name which makes it sound like a rapper), now stands only third in the polls. I have a little theory about separatist movements, which is that voters calibrate rather precisely how far they want them to go. Many vote for them because they wish to exert greater leverage on the distant central government; but when the nationalists seem to be nearing their goal of independence, voters shy away. There seems to be a maximum separatist vote of about 48 per cent. This is visible not only in Catalonia, but also in Scotland and Quebec. It may even apply in Northern Ireland.


In that unerring way that middle-aged people who wish to appear up with the times always get it wrong, clapping has become more frequent in the House of Commons just as it is questioned elsewhere. Mr Speaker Bercow never reprehends it, although it is against the custom of the House, presumably because he enjoys whatever offends tradition and because most of the clappers are on the Labour side which he favours. In a similar way, he usually allows MPs who choose to do so to address other MPs as ‘you’ instead of making them address the Chair. But the parliamentary no-clapping rule exists for a reason not completely unlike the ‘jazz hands’ custom now favoured by the young. It is to avoid the competitive or aggressive use of applause to try to win an argument or intimidate opponents. The more pacific role of jazz hands is played by the House of Commons Order Paper, which may be waved.

Uluru, until quite recently known as Ayers Rock, closed forever to climbers last week so that it could be ‘returned’ to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara whose ancestors are said to reside there. People in densely populated Britain must feel envious. If only we could stop crowds climbing over our hills. Surely many northern aboriginal families — Lowthers, Vanes, Percys etc — should protest that their ancestors’ unquiet spirits cannot rest so long as hikers tramp across their sacred rocks and moors. Once they have reclaimed these holy places, they can practise their ancient rites, such as grouse-shooting, undisturbed.

One of a new series of advertisements for Barclays Bank shows a middle-aged woman on a sofa looking happy because she has helped her young adult children with the bank’s Family Springboard Mortgage. Its slogan is ‘Success is an empty nest’. This is supposed to reverse the normal sadness of ‘empty nest syndrome’, but when I read it before I knew what it is about, I thought it was a piece of wisdom about life, like Kipling describing triumph as an impostor. Yes, perhaps success is an empty nest, in a deeper sense than that intended by Barclays Bank.

Here is a thought for the season of remembrance, recently tweeted by the Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies: ‘“We wear red poppies for remembrance and hope for a peaceful future” (Royal British Legion). But the EU provides more than hope, after centuries of conflict it was created to ensure that it must never happen again. Am I wrong to be cynical about Brexiteers wearing poppies?’ Lest we forget.


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