Fri, 3 March 2023 at 6:00 am GMT
Awaydays are a special kind of employee hell, but imagine the awfulness of Conservative MPs compelled to be together in Windsor for two whole days to contemplate one another and their future.
Team-building would test the skills of any awayday service offering trust-creating rope climbs or collaborative raft-making: try pulling together this rabble of sworn enemies and cabals with myriad acronyms, while anxious northern red wallers engage in a tug of war with the southern discomfited. Paintballing might suit them and break-out sessions will come naturally.
MPs wisely fleeing before the looming general election may feel free to speak their minds, while those clinging on with no job offers elsewhere will be enlightened by the plans of party chairman Greg Hands and political strategist Isaac Levido for an unlikely victory next year. The lowering clouds of local elections are only two months away. Before then comes a budget that few may like.
They begin with good news: their leader’s personal ratings have risen since his (so far) successful cauterising of the Northern Ireland protocol (barring Boris Johnson raising a rebellion). Sunak is up five points to a net favourability of -21, far outscoring his deeply unpopular party as Labour stays some 20 points ahead, but he still trails Keir Starmer’s score of -11. Northern Ireland, as its sad history shows, never much concerned the rest of the UK: YouGov finds 72% had no or limited awareness of the whole shebang, despite intensive news coverage. Yet in mysterious ways a general sense of the success or failure of parties and leaders percolates through even to those with little everyday interest in politics. Sunak appears to be in some control of his impossible party, to have made some peace with the EU and Got Brexit Done. The Brexit fever that ripped the country and the Tories apart is past its crisis.
But that one day’s good news is blown away by the Telegraph’s revelations about how decisions were made during the early days of the pandemic. Those who suffered family deaths, small business collapses, children damaged – some irreparably, with thousands never returning to school – none of those families have forgotten. But now the leak of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages has reminded everyone that the UK had the highest number of Covid deaths in western Europe and 55% tell YouGov the government handled Covid badly, while only 40% say it did well. Hancock, expelled, is no doubt relieved not to be in Windsor.
There is, we are told, a jolly pub quiz in the evening to cheer everyone up. But questions may be tricky, with no good answers. Start with this poser: which is hardest to get, a cucumber, an ambulance, a tomato, a dentist, a place in your chosen secondary school or a GP appointment? Here is a random selection of others.
Jot down how many households are in fuel poverty, before April’s extra £500 rise. (7.4 million.) The Royal College of Emergency Medicine says A&E waits are causing how many extra deaths a week? (446.) Which unlikely former education secretary says teachers look for “an excuse not to teach” and “really do just hate work”? Gavin Williamson. The CBI reports manufacturing falling by its fastest rate since 2020: by how much? (16%.) Which is “the world’s most exciting economic zone” and why? (Northern Ireland, because it alone has what the UK had until three years ago, full access to the UK and EU single market.) Here’s their big question: “Write down three things – or anything – the government is responsible for that works better now than when we took over in 2010.”
The entertainment doesn’t end there. The chancellor has £31bn more than he expected to spend in this month’s budget. MPs can divide into groups and fight it out over how this should be spent. Some want to cut taxes now, Truss-style. Some want to save it all up for a war chest to splurge just ahead of the election. Some would borrow and spend more and, as Jeremy Hunt has already done, kick repayments into a mountain of cuts planned for 2025, making a “there’s no money” bombshell for Labour: Hunt plainly doesn’t expect to win.
Some (in actual fact, rather few) decent types point forlornly at the state of the nation and call for the tidal wave of strikes by public sector workers – whose real pay has fallen most years, but this year by a startling amount – to be addressed. That could cost a mere £13bn, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Look at the state of the NHS, say others: Labour promises salvation for the future by training thousands more doctors, nurses and midwives. Wouldn’t it be wise to at least match that? Others mutter about how hard it will be to stand convincingly as the law and order party when victims wait three years for cases to come to trial. Or what of potholes? The police? Social care? Defence? Easing the cost of living looks beyond their reach or reckoning as the austerity they voted for with such gusto now wreaks revenge on them.
Michael Gove, often one step ahead, is starting to lay out a strategy to get the Tories back on to safer ground. They can’t win on the economy. They can’t win on public services. He is urging them back on to the familiar home turf of morals and culture war. In a speech to the Onward thinktank he said the party should stop being neutral on the need for “stronger” families, “the most important institution of all” that creates “better mental health, better educational outcomes for children, happier lives and more secure communities”.
This smacks of good old back to basics, which didn’t rescue John Major in 1997. As levelling up secretary, he should know that the poorer the family, the more likely it is to collapse, less for lack of morals than lack of income, housing, childcare and decent jobs. But that kind of “radical social activist movement” must be resisted, he says. What does he mean? Here’s his appetiser for these politics: child benefit should be taken from parents if children regularly miss school. (No word of common underlying reasons for absence, from parental addictions and mental ill health to no uniform or lunch.) Benefits are already far below 2010 levels, but could squeezing the last pips win votes? Though a snap poll found 44% in support of his plan, 40% against, nastiness is not a winning ticket. There is overwhelming support for food banks and for strikers from a population that knows what the cost of living and the failure of public services are doing to everyone. Bring on the team builders, but no amount of awaydays will devise any escape from these fundamentals of their own failure.
- Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist