The media has led the country into an anti-Tory fervour

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

When Sir Keir Starmer walked onto the stage for last Thursday’s edition of Question Time, he was audibly booed.

When he refused repeatedly to say whether he had meant what he said when he claimed that Jeremy Corbyn would make a “great prime minister”, the audience laughed.

Yet this is the man who is, we must assume, about to be elected prime minister in an unprecedented landslide. Even though much of the popular anger with the Conservatives is clearly coming from the Right, with voters stating explicitly that they are furious about both the failure to control migration, and exorbitant levels of taxation, the electorate seems about to install a party of the Left which could well end up declaring an effective amnesty for illegal migrants and raising taxes.

Nigel Farage, who is going to facilitate that enormous Labour victory by dividing what might have been the Tory vote, is a man whose personality, by all the traditional measures, should be anathema in national public life. His political persona – the egregious conceit, bombastic braggadocio, and almost nihilistic disregard for the damaging consequences of his strategy – is, paradoxically, quite un-British.

So, with apologies for tiresome repetition, I ask again the question that this column has posed before: what is going on here?

Let me be clear: I absolutely understand the disgust with the chaotic and visibly irresponsible shambles of a succession of aborted Conservative attempts at leadership.

I get that. The expectation that the Tories will lose this election is completely reasonable.

What seems odd is the disjuncture between the unprecedented degree of hatred that appears to dominate the political scene, and the daily experience of most people. There have been historical moments within living memory when the everyday lives of much of the population were far more desperate than now – and then you could feel fear and outrage in the streets.

In the fateful Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 which changed the politics of this country, when the uncollected rubbish was piling up on the pavements, the streets were blocked with uncleared snow and ice, and the lights were going out, nobody talked of anything else. This was not just annoyance or exasperation: it was a sense of existential dread, a truly terrifying vision of a country that was beyond hope of recovery and restoration. The Tories would take power in the May of 1979 with a working majority of 44 seats, but no great hope that they would be able to bring the country out of what seemed like an inevitable doom spiral.

Living through that time was a bit like living through the war. There was serious doubt about whether the country could survive in its present form. A great many people who had the chance, simply left to make their lives in America or Australia because they believed that there could never be any future for them here.

More than a decade later, the Thatcher government had its own moment of explosive public discontent. The poll tax riots of 1990 came close to rocking the political establishment in a tumultuous wave of rebellion. For a moment, Downing Street trembled. Then it caved, Thatcher faced a leadership challenge, resigned, and her potential successors uniformly announced that the policy would be abolished.

Again, there was a palpable outrage which you could hear and feel in the public square. It was a phenomenon that was talked about by real people – not just the media – in the pubs and in the bus queues because it had an immediate impact on so many households. I would say that the only issue with that sort of resonance today is the state of the NHS which really is a topic of everyday conversation because it has life-changing consequences, and so many people have personal anecdotes to contribute.

But Labour has not outlined any credible plan for dealing with this that I can see as unambiguously distinct from what a Conservative government would do. Indeed, given Labour’s relationship with the trade unions, their demands are likely to take precedence over any reforms that might bring dramatic change.

So the question must be: is there something unreal about this present picture? Frustration and disillusionment certainly abounds, especially for the young who are hoping to buy homes or even rent them at affordable prices. But then again, they are not faced with the hopelessness of mass unemployment that previous generations were.

There is no shortage of jobs for those prepared to take them.

Both taxation and the cost of living are outrageously high but that, as people should understand, is a consequence of a series of emergencies for which no one has an instant remedy. And yet we have an unstoppable stampede to a leader who, according to the polls, is actively disliked by nearly half of respondents and a party whose programme for government is deliberately, almost absurdly, vacuous. Or do we?

Rishi Sunak was certainly the wrong person to be fighting this fight. What was needed after the Truss car-crash was an elder statesman of calm and sombre maturity to deliver a grave message that would have put the dilemma in frank terms, and asked the country to help bear the burden with its usual steadfastness. But even allowing for that miscasting, I have never seen a media pile-on against a ruling government like this one.

In the – literally – dark days when militant trade unions were making the lives of ordinary people impossible, or in the febrile anti-Thatcher period, there was still some attempt to describe events and their causes in a way that made them graspable. There was at least some acceptance of the need, when reporting an immediate crisis, to set it in a context that helped to account for government decisions, making it clear how limited the choices were.

But now? Can you recall hearing a broadcast interview or discussion which acknowledged the economic damage done by the pandemic and the Ukraine war, and the severe restrictions that they have imposed on the government’s decisions?

Most crucially, has this relentless news onslaught made it unthinkable to vote Conservative? Or just unthinkable to admit to the pollsters that you are going to vote Conservative?