We all know the truth about the wealth and privilege of the future Tory front bench, says Rod Liddle, but it’s better to brazen it out like Boris than try to seem apologetic
The Labour party’s cynical attempt to target the opposition as a party of champagne-guzzling toffs, preening and loaded Hooray-Henrys and chinless, mewing, high-born upper-crust monkeys may well work. There are still quite a lot of people in this country who are sufficiently bitter and petty to hold the Tories’ background and upbringing against them and, as it happens, I’m one of them. I suspect there are another couple of million or so of us at large, mostly north of the Watford Gap services. Another reason the Labour accusations may well stick is that of all the claims and counter-claims we will have to suffer in the run-up to the next election, not least the frankly surreal spats over spending plans, this one is palpably and tangibly true, provably so. Like it or not, the Conservative party is the party of inherited wealth, private education and conspicuous affluence. Some 64 per cent of the shadow Cabinet attended fee-paying schools; 90 per cent of them are men; all of them are white and a large proportion are absolutely rolling in it.
How do I know this? Because late one night I went through the names and compiled a list, that’s how: that’s what bitter and petty people do of an evening, when Match of the Day has finished. By comparison, three quarters of the Labour front bench were state-educated and even after the sudden defenestrations of Smith and Flint and Blears there are still a few women around (although not enough) and even the occasional black face. In other words, they may be arrogant and incompetent, but they are still far, far more representative of the electorate than the Tories. Indeed, the top Tories have a more comfortably highborn look than at any time since Anthony Eden and it does not matter how often poor Eric Pickles is shoved in front of the microphone by some blue-stockinged CCHQ deb and told to camp up the vowels a bit, darling, and maybe chew this pork pie while you speak; the facts cannot be gainsaid: overwhelmingly they are rich, expensively educated, privileged.
Does this make them incompetent? Probably not. Does it mean that some of us will feel that they may not entirely understand what it is not to have wealth and privilege and fear that they be protective of that wealth and privilege when in office? Absolutely, no matter what they say to the contrary. And the real proof of the veracity and potency of this attack is this: quite clearly, Conservative central office is terrified by it — which is why those nice photographs of Dave and George and Boris posing like smug if inebriated penguins at the Bullingdon Club all those years ago suddenly went missing. They realise it holds a certain defining truth, even if it is one they would dispute has any merit philosophically or morally. And it is why they went to such pains to ensure Cameron et al were not immersed in vast buckets of champagne with dead lobsters coming out of their ears at conference, in case the snappers were around, in case we saw them once more as we expect to see them.
It is a reason — one reason of probably many — why Tory central office doesn’t want Boris Johnson around too much in this forthcoming campaign. Our former editor’s pantomime turns for the television news (and better still, Newsnight) were the highlights of a dull week in Manchester. Much was made of Boris’s apparent differences with David Cameron, particularly on the issues of repealing the 50 per cent tax and whether or not the commitment to a referendum on the EU Treaty should be honoured if — as is likely — the treaty is ratified before the next election. But if we’re honest, these are differences more of tone than substance and easily nudged into touch when push comes to shove. They are certainly not differences of principle, in any case — simply things that Boris was happy to alight upon while playing rather brilliantly to the gallery. I refuse to believe that the Mayor of London believes it is remotely feasible to hold a referendum if the deal is done and dusted, even if both morally and viscerally we might still want one.
The real difference between the two men is far more profound and telling: Cameron seems to feel the need to apologise for his class, for his upbringing, for his wealth and the wealth of his wife, as if by doing so it might make him appear less wealthy and less high born. Boris Johnson has absolutely none of that: there is no apology, because he does not feel he has anything to apologise for. Watching him prevail in the battle of two high-born public schoolboys — by which I mean Johnson (Eton) vs Paxman (Malvern) — was a rare pleasure; this was Boris at his best, back to a time before the undead apparatchiks who ran his mayoral campaign constrained him and forced out of him unaccountable platitudes. ‘Normal service is now resumed,’ said Paxo after their spat, which might have meant a return to interviewing politicians who endured their interviews from a solely defensive posture.
In a strange — and you might argue, perverse — sort of way, I get the suspicion that the electorate minds toffs a lot less when they do not adopt a cringing posture, pretend to listen to the Arctic Monkeys, pledge to ‘keep it real’ and nail several wind-turbines to their foreheads in order to appear both modern and part of the hoi polloi. I do not agree with Boris Johnson’s defence of banker’s bonuses (that ‘neo-socialist claptrap’ line) — probably because I am a neo-socialist. But I am glad that he made the remark because I suspect that underneath it is what his party feels. Much as his party feels that hiking up the top tax rate to 50 per cent is penalising the wrong people.
I would rather this playing to the gallery, if that is what it is, than the eternal playing to that 350,000 of undecided lower-middle-class voters whom the party managers believe will decide the outcome of the next general election. In general the British people like their toffs to be toffs, to behave with chutzpah and a degree of imperious disdain towards upstarts from such lowly institutions as Malvern. Either way, the Conservative party will not be able to keep the provenance of its front bench a secret; we all know the truth. Better to embrace it, I reckon.