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For Whom the Bell Tolls

Updated: Mar 24

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Rishi Sunak can be forgiven for thinking it’s pealing, unappealingly, for him. He’s bought himself a few more months in Downing Street by ruling out a May election, but the behaviour of his own party is inclining itself towards oblivion. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the Tory ship seems holed both above and below the waterline.

‘In warfare the morale of the soldiers is three times as important as the strength of the army.’ Ok, things didn’t end well for Napoleon, but his shrewd observation about what really matters in a punch-up still rings true.

It’d be wrong to say the flagrant disloyalty busting out all over within Tory ranks is the beginning and end of the Prime Minister’s problems, but it is a key factor. And it feeds on itself.

The more despondency, at times downright defiance, there is on display at all levels of his parliamentary party, the more near-impossible it becomes for him to shift the dial of public opinion.

It’s reached a point now that even advisers at Number Ten are privately admitting to hacks that things aren’t going well. Sunak himself still manages to wear a smile, but it’s looking increasingly rictus these days.

No, he’s not a monster, and nor is he anyone’s fool. In fact, he played a blinder during his time as Chancellor. Remember how he bailed out the nation during the Covid crisis, with his furlough scheme? Dishi Rishi to the rescue?

Problem being that overseeing the Treasury entails a whole different skillset from running the country. And his background in finance is fine for the first job, but not a lot of use in the second.

The fact that he’s only been an MP for less than a decade does not help.

Annoying adulty adults tend to tell young chaps who’ve just passed their driving test that experience is what it’s all about. Doubly annoying because they’re usually right.

The old stagers don’t do a calculated risk assessment as they whiz up to a bend when it’s raining. They just know it’s time to slow down. Call it experience, instinct, or whatever, it’s built in.

And the controversy over Tory mega-donor Frank Hester shines the perfect spotlight on where Sunak falls short.

Yes, the bloke’s shelled out some fifteen-million pounds to the party. And yes, giving that back because he’s a bad egg is a bitter pill to swallow. Especially in an election year.

But the fact is he did say something egregiously racist and offensive about the MP Diane Abbott.

His reported observations that the sight of her made him ‘just want to hate all black women’, and that she ‘should be shot’ don’t exactly pour oil on today’s deeply troubled waters.

The distressing uptick in anti Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes, not to mention the security threat facing many MPs, are indicative of the febrile atmosphere that currently abounds.

This very week the government’s been trying to pin down what does and doesn’t define extremism. A delicate and sensitive task. But surely, Hester’s attitude must classify as beyond the pale.

Well, no not really, Sunak prevaricated. Yes, he has been rather naughty, but he has said he’s ever so sorry.

How long that line holds remains to be seen. The pressure’s on, uncomfortable headlines pile up and the Tory brand becomes that bit more soiled.

Now compare and contrast the handling of the difficulty by relative newbie Rishi to what old stager and one-time Tory Chairman Lord Patten makes of the matter:

‘If he’s made remarks which are racist, how can you in a reasonable way take ten million smackers of his money? It seems to me that it’s pretty open and shut.’

Certainly would have shut down the controversy. Just like that. A matter of instinct, experience, political savvy. Simples.

Then there’s the imbroglio over the until not so long ago Deputy Conservative Chairman Lee Anderson. Or rather, as Private Eye magazine delights in framing him, Lee Anderthal.

His suggestion that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is in hock to Islamists didn’t play well, unsurprisingly, and Sunak duly booted him out.

He only promoted him because he hoped the man known as the ‘Red Wall Rottweiler’ might help keep wavering voters oop north onside. But what a bad call that turned out to be.

Again, the lack of Sunak savvy comes under the spotlight, given Anderson’s form on shooting from the hip. Repeatedly saying things that were abhorrent to moderate-minded Tories.

No great surprise then, though arguably a home goal for Rishi, as the bloke showed his true colours by flouncing off to the right wing Reform Party. And demanding his country back, whatever exactly that’s supposed to mean.

End of story? Not, as Anderson’s flamboyantly anti-immigrant attitude doesn’t exactly stick in the throat of all Tory MPs. In fact a fair few of them think he’s been hard done by, as he’s definitely on to something.

And this in itself is a reminder of what Sunak’s up against. Hard enough trying to control any party, but, when effectively there are two of them masquerading as one, the job’s pretty much undoable.

That much is no less obvious to the rival factions as, opinion polls clearly indicate, it is to the voting public.

Hence the extremely audible rustling in the undergrowth, as the list of likely contenders for the Tory top job after the election is lost gets longer and longer, as well as noisier and noisier.

Will Boris Johnson ride to the rescue, like St George doing his dragon-slaying bit? Will someone nice and sensible helm the Conservative ship back to calmer waters? Or even, will the party fess up to the truth and split down the middle?

It’s a long shot. A very long one. But it wouldn’t be a first in British politics. Remember the Gang of Four, anyone?

When Labour lurched to the left in the early eighties, its fragmentation reached such a pitch that a group of top bods formed the breakaway SDP.

Fat lot of good it did them in the end, but they had followed their hearts and levelled with the punters. And their short-term appeal did at least help begin Labour’s tortuous journey back to the mainstream.

Food for thought there, maybe, as hard right elements currently under Rishi Sunak’s increasingly flappy wing bask in the balmy – some might say barmy – air of their own imagined El Dorado.

Meantime, as the tally mounts of Tories announcing they won’t even try to defend their seats at the election, the notion of rats deserting the sinking ship heaves into view.

But, let’s not be rattist about this, some of the dear little rodents do know how to party.

A whole bunch of them have managed to get into a seriously prohibited section of a police headquarters in New Orleans, and have been having a lovely time with evidence compiled by the drugs squad.

As pest control expert Ron Harrison points out, they tend to share the same experience as humans when they get their teeth into certain substances.

You know, relaxation, euphoria, altered senses. Well, you only actually do know if you’ve been there. But the local top cop Anne Kirkpatrick puts it succinctly: ‘The rats eating our marijuana, they’re all high.’

A parallel with politics? Could be.


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