Broken Britannia’s Conservative Party Conference

Photograph Source: NCVO London – CC BY 2.0

The UK’s annual Conservative party conference was held last week.

Unlike the fairly contentious Labour party conference the week before, where its leader Keir Starmer left behind him a slew of broken promises and betrayals of ordinary members and the unions as he pushed the party rightwards into the arms of a played-out Blairism, Boris “BoJo” Johnson encountered nothing to threaten his childhood dream of becoming “king of the world” (or the Tory party at any rate).

This Tory conference was stage-managed in the manner of the meaningless jamborees held by the US Republicans and Democrats every 4 years in which a candidate from each party is anointed to contest the forthcoming presidential election.

Tory conferences were not always so.

BoJo’s predecessor as party leader, Theresa May, had an uncontrollable bout of nervous coughing when she spoke at her conference (a sympathetic member of the audience gave her a throat lozenge), the letters of the slogan on the wall behind her podium started to slide down to the floor ever so slowly, and a protester marched up to her to give her a fake P45 (the UK equivalent of the American pink slip).

BoJo’s leader’s speech was a litany of lame jokes that lumbered towards him and his audience from some horizon of inanity. Never mind, because his adoring party members just lapped up everything.

There was simply no acknowledgment at the Borisfest that Ukania is in a complete mess.

Supermarkets have empty shelves, there have been petrol shortages all over the country, pubs are short of booze, fast-food outlets have no chicken products to sell, energy prices have skyrocketed by 30%, the EU is in no hurry to help Ukania over energy supplies, 10 years of wage stagnation are taking their toll, there have been no pay increases for selfless public sector workers bearing the brunt of the pandemic, budgets for essential public services undergo repeated cycles of Tory slash-and-burn, the UK has its highest tax burden since the 1940s, BoJo’s “oven ready” Brexit deal has turned out to be a calamitous dud, farmers watch their produce rot because of a shortage of essential labour caused by harvesters returning to their EU countries and choosing not to come back to the UK, fishermen got sold down the Channel a long time ago by BoJo’s Brexit deal, the NHS is in crisis because of a shortage of nurses, a third of children and their parents live in poverty, poor families are about to have a £1040/$1225 per year welfare cut, the difference in expected lifespan between the wealthiest and poorest areas has more than doubled since the early 2000s, 1 in 6 adults are not able to buy essential foods and 15% could not buy fuel, UK house prices have risen at their fastest rate since 2004, post-Brexit trade deals greeted with a fanfare of trumpets and drum rolls are mere cut-and-paste jobs done on old deals, billions are wasted on no-bid Covid contracts that are thrown like confetti at Tory fat-cat chums, the leaked Panama papers show the Tories to be deep in the clutches of some very dodgy donors (and that offshore-held UK property worth £4bn/$5.45bn is in the hands of various shysters), the withdrawal from Kabul was mismanaged, things are so miserable for Afghan refugees cloistered in dingy Ukanian hotels that they are begging to be sent back to Afghanistan (doubtless to receive a cordial welcome from the Taliban), pigs are having to be culled because of a shortage of workers at meat-processing plants, little is being done to address the increasingly serious environmental crisis—the list goes on.

The breezy fantasist BoJo responded by telling Brits not to believe their eyes– Brexit was a good idea that on the whole is being well implemented, the response to the Covid pandemic did have a few glitches but was handled as well as possible (moreover it was beyond anyone’s ability to control, so no blame can be laid at BoJo’s feet), suspect donors can’t be a problem because donating to the Conservatives is a supremely good cause, the Kabul airlift “had been a magnificent triumph”, our Aussie friends and Bolsonaro will help us out with food shortages, and so what if tens of thousands of healthy pigs get a bullet in the head before being incinerated, since like all mortal beings they were going to die anyway?

“Building back better” (a slogan swiped from Joe Biden) and “levelling up” were coming along swimmingly– sure there were some painful bits in rebalancing an underperforming economy, but Ukania is now transitioning to high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy, and some pain can be expected along the way.

Not that BoJo mentioned any actual plans for bringing this about, and no one at the conference seemed to have a clue about what “levelling up” and “building back better” entailed in practical terms.

The severe shortage of truckers and other workers, which as a result of Brexit can no longer be plugged by bringing in low-wage labour from the EU, is pushing up the wages of Brits, and is a good indication that Ukania really is on the way to becoming a high wage economy. Or so BoJo’s story goes. The reality is that while wages are up by 2.4% on average, inflation is at 4%.

Likewise, according to this make-believe, food shortages are helping address Ukania’s obesity crisis, the disruption of supermarket supply chains could lead to the reemergence of smaller-scale enterprises such as corner shops (which were wiped-out by the supermarkets), and the lack of fuel helps slow the pace of environmental degradation by making it harder for people to go around in their cars.

Such is the Panglossian underbelly of Brexit and Covid! By contrast, a YouGov survey of 29 September revealed that 53% of people thought that Brexit was going badly, thereby administering a salutary corrective to BoJo’s optimism.

BoJo, a complete economic illiterate, prefers to keep things “aspirational”. Bold initiatives without substance or detailed planning are his forte (an unfeasible bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland spanning the Irish Sea being the latest)—these headline-grabbing schemes bring him the adulation of Tory voters, and the only thing that matters to him is that he feels their love. Those who ridicule his plans are “woke” nay-sayers who delight in talking Britannia down.

Excursions into the Johnsonian wonderland apart, the other focus at the conference was on the culture wars. BoJo led the way.

Jeremy Corbyn was “the corduroyed communist cosmonaut”, Starmer “a seriously rattled bus conductor” and “the skipper of a cruise liner that has been captured by Somali pirates”. The “metropolitan elite” received a swipe or two, as Johnson derided “the powder rooms of the north London dinner parties” and “lefty Islington lawyers” (without mentioning the fact that he had lived in Islington for nearly a decade!). A flotilla of bad puns completed the speech.

The astonishing thing is that the Tories are still ahead of Labour in the polls.

His duty done, BoJo took off for the resort town of Marbella, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Spain’s gangsters used to hang out, giving it the name “Costa del Crime”, until the Spanish government got fed-up with the mobsters and cleaned the place up.

BoJo, the Old Etonian, stayed at a posh villa, probably free of charge, owned by the Old Etonian Zac Goldsmith, whom BoJo had awarded a peerage a short time ago, probably in anticipation of the goodies Goldsmith would push in his direction.

The old Spanish gangsters in Marbella would probably have felt at home in BoJo’s company.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.