Toby Young has never been shy of self-promotion. He admits to possessing a “gargantuan” ego, writes frequently about himself and was famously the author of a book called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. But even he must have been slightly surprised that the first big political story of the year should revolve around his suitability for a minor post on a previously little-known quango.
Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students, a new watchdog for universities, sparked a firestorm on social media and a furore in Westminster. His old comments in columns and on Twitter have been dug up, exposing an abrasive character who could pick a fight in solitary confinement. Labour has demanded the move be reversed because of his sexism, snobbery and homophobia, while academics scorn the idea of such a partisan figure overseeing their sector.
The Spectator columnist hit back in typically pugnacious style, claiming he was a target for the left because he was an “outspoken Tory”. He apologised speedily for “sophomoric, politically incorrect remarks” made in the past and accepted the government had exaggerated his qualifications over minor teaching tasks at Harvard and Cambridge. Boris Johnson joined battle in his usual bombastic style, tweeting about a “ridiculous” outcry over his old Oxford chum. “He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for job”.
There is a hefty degree of hypocrisy when Labour figures attack a Tory placeman given their own party’s record in government on packing public bodies with patsy sympathisers. And it is pathetic to see some pompous academics attack Young’s lack of experience, underlining only their own arrogant sense of superiority and why there is such urgent need for outsiders to play a role in their regulation. Universities have had a terrible year, symbolised by fat cat chiefs stuffing vast sums into their pockets. Besides, every organisation benefits from people prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and dissent from consensus.
I am no fan of many of Young’s views, with his slavish party loyalty, his dismissal of inclusion for disabled pupils, support for so-called “progressive eugenics” and loud promotion of Brexit. But he has a perfect right to hit back hard when commentators such as Paul Mason sneer that he “despises working-class kids who try to make good through education”. Like him or loathe him, Young deserves immense credit for his drive and energy in setting up four free schools in west London that educate hundreds of children, many eligible for the pupil premium. If only more people backed up their talk and tweeting with such communal action and personal investment in a cause.
It is simply unacceptable to tweet about a female MP’s cleavage, to talk about 'hardcore dykes'
Yet what this appointment exposes again with painful clarity is a Tory party out of step with modern society. The appointment and defence of Young, despite his boorish sexism and his strange belief there is something “ghastly” about schools having to include children in wheelchairs, shows they do not see how their values lose them friends and alienate many voters. It is simply unacceptable to tweet about a female MP’s cleavage, to talk about “hardcore dykes” and compare children with learning disabilities to “functionally illiterate troglodytes”.
This is not “caustic wit” but contempt. And to point this out is not political correctness gone mad, nor anything to do with free speech. It is about basic respect for other human beings – as defined by a former Tory leader. “I have a disabled son and I don’t want people to call him a spastic,” said David Cameron shortly before becoming prime minister when asked about political correctness. “You are a gay man, you don’t want someone to call you a poof. If you have a black friend, you don’t want someone to call them something offensive. It’s about manners.”
People look for signals from political parties. Young’s appointment sends the wrong signals. The core problem for Tories is the toxicity of their brand with younger voters – which in their terms, means under 50 years old. These are people raised in a diverse, open and pluralistic society who see things such as feminism, integration and multiculturalism as beneficial for Britain. Cameron’s successor once bravely told Conservatives they were seen as the nasty party. By placing an offensive polemicist on a key public body, Theresa May reinforces this repellent image.
• Ian Birrell was a speechwriter for David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign