The Daily Telegraph
Why I’ve had enough of centrist talking heads
The media’s Overton window is so narrow that tax-cutting Conservatives are considered deranged
The railway unions timed their strikes for the first and last day of the Tory conference, which means you can’t get here and, if you do, you can’t escape. I somehow made it by car – at midnight, in the pouring rain – only to discover that Liz Truss’s debut has become The Michael Gove Show, aka Revenge of the Wets (every generation gets a Ted Heath).
Well, the broadcasters are lapping it up, and why wouldn’t they? Michael is as brilliant as ever; I agree that the budget was flawed. But at the same time, the scale of opprobrium against Liz and Kwasi feels a bit out of whack. The biggest price tag was the energy price cap (£60 billion), while National Insurance and Corporation Tax were not cuts but reversals. The shock was abolishing the highest rate, a huge error of political judgment but a drop in the ocean at just £2 billion. That’s about two Gary Linekers and a royal yacht.
The “Tories are evil” narrative was inevitable; what’s striking is the size of the industry that now exists to support it. The Budget and its aftermath was covered like a volcano had erupted, such that I was surprised the BBC didn’t trail the downward slide of the pound in a helicopter (“If it reaches parity with the dollar, Clive, millions could die”), and there was no shortage of talking heads ready to call the Budget astonishing, incredible or unprecedented. Post-covid, Conservatives are not just pushing against a collectivist political consensus but also a media that is more sensitive than ever to its role in protecting the health of the nation, bolstered by podcasts and experts.
My favourite Doctor Centrist is Rory Stewart. Last week he was interviewed by Politicsjoe, and he did his usual thing of saying the Conservative Party had left him rather than the other way around, presumably when it declined to elect him leader. “If only all Tories were like you,” comes the chorus, “I’d consider voting for them.”
Liars! For a start, the myth that the Conservatives have suddenly gone mad because they are cutting taxes for the rich is, well, a bit rich given that they did exactly the same during the coalition, when Rory was still a Tory MP. Rory is lauded now because it is useful to find an ex-conservative to attack the Conservatives, but his cuddliness is very much in the eye of the beholder. In that same interview, he said that though Truss can be fun to talk to, it is “difficult to have a detailed, thoughtful conversation with [her]. It’s almost as if there’s attention deficit disorder.” That’s not very nice, is it?
He went on to say that politics has declined into provocative simplicity, which is sadly correct, but if that sensationalist approach is found among the people who wrote the Budget, might we not say it’s found among some of those who criticise it as well? The Financial Times knocked up a loopy graph that plotted parties by ideology and claimed that the Tories had leap-frogged the US Republicans to the far-right of the economic spectrum. This is ridiculous; they still support progressive taxation, the NHS will go unreformed and they’ll let in even more migrants. These political compasses exist not to show where politicians stand but to mark out a zone of acceptability in our discourse, somewhere around the Rory Stewart centre. Step an inch away, to Left or Right, and you are labelled a lunatic.
Aside from the widespread exaggeration of the numbers involved in the Budget, I’m also struck by the lack of global context (in the Netherlands, inflation has hit 17 per cent, suggesting the grass is not greener, even where they smoke it) or curiosity regarding the motivating philosophy.
The bigger questions are avoided. We all know this crisis was caused by Covid and the war in Ukraine. So when are we going to acknowledge the costs of lockdown? Or discuss what victory in Ukraine actually looks like?
I can’t get my head around Birmingham. It reminds me of Jean-luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville, which was set in a sci-fi city but filmed in contemporary Paris, to make the point that France was already on its way to becoming a giant circuit board. Efficient but inhospitable. Birmingham was constructed for cars; pedestrians can get lost. On the first night, I asked a hotel receptionist if there was a supermarket nearby, to get some milk and cookies.
“Take a right,” he said, “keep going, take a left via the underpass, then a sharp right, cross the dual-carriage way and, after 20 minutes, you should see a Sainsbury’s. My advice is to wait till breakfast.”
Brum is a forest of tall hotels supporting a calendar of conferences, where delegates, despite having the latest technology to hand, still swap cards. The event I’m most looking forward to is Conservative friends of CO2.
But one can always retreat to the Oratory of St Philip Neri, where the clock turns back to a pre-turbine age, and there are so many strong smells and brass lamps you might think you’d wandered into a Byzantine bazaar. How nice to see Catholicism done properly! Garlanded with golden flowers and ripe with cherubs. The modern world fills our mind with trivia, warned the homilist, going on to discuss the Battle of Lepanto, Satan and Leon Trotsky – utterly detached from contemporary culture, and thus more relevant than anything you’ll hear all week.