I suppose Rishi Sunak’s first post-pandemic budget last week could’ve been a contender for an old New Labour innovation, that of appearing at a time conducive for burying bad news. Delivering a far-from optimistic message to the non-wealthy residents of the nation – i.e. nobody belonging to the Chancellor’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances – when so much attention is focused on a war taking place on the other side of Europe was a handy way of getting the bad news out there, though the reactions from those who have been struggling ever since Lockdown Mk. I have dragged some traditional Tory perspectives on the less well-off back into the spotlight. The gains made when the red wall came tumbling down in 2019 are only just still intact at the moment courtesy of the Opposition’s suicidal commitment to the Identity Politics agenda; were Labour more clued-up on the widespread dissatisfaction with the Conservative’s contemptuous approach to their newfound voters, they’d have reclaimed their natural territory and would be in a healthy position to fight the next Election.
A belated reaction to the way in which Covid was handled by an administration that evidently didn’t regard the coronavirus as dangerous as the advertising campaign it pumped into the paranoid minds of the public has fired the aforementioned dissatisfaction, along with the governing party’s manner of resuscitating an economy it summarily destroyed during the pandemic – and who will pay for the almighty mess? Yes, me and thee once again, just as we did in the austerity era of the Coalition a decade ago. When the anger of the public is articulated so that it pierces the thick Tory skin, the default Tory response is to fall back on antiquated opinions that are even present in the thought-processes of new recruits one might imagine would be more in-tune with the needs of their constituents than some of their party’s grandees.
Sunak’s refusal to restore Universal Credit’s £20 uplift at a time of rising inflation and soaring energy bills – factors that will hit those on the lowest incomes as usual – has tapped in to the disgust with the Tories that the whole ‘Partygate’ saga fuelled. Independent think-tank the Resolution Foundation has estimated around 1.3 million members of the public (500,000 of them children) will plunge into absolute poverty this year; it predicts the incomes of those lucky enough to be in work will plummet 4% by 2023, despite the Chancellor’s trumpeted cuts to fuel duty and National Insurance. One might almost cynically wonder if Sunak is more concerned with putting on a good show for the party faithful in the event of a leadership contest rather than aiding the hardest hit by the policies instigated by his Government in 2020 and 2021. Not that the greenest Tory evangelists have passed on the concerns of their angry constituents to Central Office, however; some have endorsed the party line with sycophantic stupidity.
The revival of a Tory attitude towards those teetering on the brink of poverty, an attitude reminiscent of George Osborne in his cuddly prime, surfaced on one of those Sunday lunchtime regional politics shows on the BBC this weekend. It came from the MP for South Ribble, a certain Katherine Fletcher, only elected in December 2019, and someone who has risen without a trace ever since. Active on social media, Ms Fletcher’s Facebook page is full of tokenistic nods to whatever this week’s good cause happens to be – the NHS, cancer awareness, Holocaust Memorial Day, Ukraine etc. etc. – and photographic evidence of her ‘constituency duties’ appears to portray her as akin to an old-school Lord Mayor whose hand-shaking and ribbon-snipping photo-ops seemed guaranteed to make the front page of the local rag. The irate comments left on Fletcher’s facile FB posts by people who are clearly not on her payroll tend to elicit the response of somebody incapable of engaging with those she is supposed to represent at Westminster: she doesn’t reply and then she removes the comments whilst blocking the commenter. And according to reliable sources, it’d be easier to get straight through to a human employee of yer average utility company on the telephone than it would be to arrange an in-person audience with the Honourable Member for South Ribble in order to express any grievances that are verboten on Facebook.
On camera, Katherine Fletcher comes across as a detached receptionist at a GP’s surgery, the kind who looks down her nose at the patients as though she’s on a level playing field with the doctors working there. Her response to the Queen’s Speech in 2021 was memorably forgettable with the exception of her fatuous reference to Her Majesty as ‘flipping ace’ – a description of Brenda one might have expected from an ill-educated cast member of ‘Grange Hill’ in the early 80s, but not from a grownup Member of Parliament elected in 2019. Her route to Westminster came via the familiar gravy train of the town council and she didn’t necessarily endear herself to her local branch of the party when, upon being elected, she had her name emblazoned on the front of their office in the Lancashire town of Leyland, as though it was a shop and she was the proprietor. The laughably large sign was relocated to the side of the building after complaints were raised, but perhaps the egotistical gesture spoke volumes as to the woman’s opinion of herself – one not exactly shared by her constituents.
When she appeared on BBC1’s ‘Politics North West’, Katherine Fletcher dismissed the predictions of the Resolution Foundation – whose executive chairman is the former Tory MP David Willetts – and sneered that people were ‘sitting on benefits’; when presented with claims that those actually in work were confronted by levels of poverty more commonly associated with the unemployed, Fletcher denied this and said ‘You get any job, you get a better job, you get a career.’ She stopped short of recommending that her less fortunate constituents acquire a bike so that they might be able to cycle to the nearest Job Centre, but the general tone was one of an out-of-touch and arrogant Tory MP that the triumph of 2019 suggested had long since been put out to pasture in the Lords.
The reaction to her TV appearance has provoked the kind of comments on her Facebook wall that will no doubt shortly be erased. ‘My friend works two jobs,’ said one. ‘She’s 60, has health problems, and I have to buy her food and help her with heating costs. How is she sat on benefits? Two jobs and she’s still in poverty. She works 7 days a week. How can you explain this?’ Another comment says ‘How dare you preach to us. Give your head a wobble and enjoy what time you can squander being an MP because after your comments you have lost! APOLOGISE for your actions!’ And then one that no doubt hits home: ‘People are sitting on benefits, are they? It seems like you’ve claimed a lot on your expenses over the past couple of years – £224,791 to be exact. Looks like MPs are sitting/sleeping on some extortionate benefits, as well as on the job. Gross.’ Another – left by the carer of a pensioner with Parkinson’s and dementia – suggested a job swap with the MP, inviting her to ‘come and clean up my uncle’s chronic diarrhoea at 5am.’
The general consensus amongst the constituents who comment on Katherine Fletcher’s Facebook account is that she is reciting from a manual many foolishly imagined MPs representing her party no longer subscribe to. And South Ribble isn’t even a former red wall constituency; yes, like many traditionally Conservative areas, it had a Labour MP during the Blair era, but David Borrow was an anomaly in what has otherwise been a solidly Tory stronghold from its inception in 1983. When even an MP representing such a safe seat can provoke such hostility, the popular perception that the Tories are as out-of-touch in 2022 as they were in 1997 is evidently not limited to the Labour front-bench. But as for that Labour front-bench…
© The Editor