TEA AND EMPATHY

If the Labour Party hMoggas excelled in the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot discipline of late, we shouldn’t forget the Tories are just as expert at this particular event. Whereas Labour’s vote-winning idea of reclaiming the Red Wall is to embroil itself in a Lewis Carroll-like nonsensical strain of Identity Politics (guaranteed to woo Brenda of Bristol back to the fold), the Conservative Party cannot help itself from alienating the members of the electorate it borrowed in 2019 by reverting to type, pedalling an outdated Home Counties view of the vulnerable as a drain on the nation’s resources. They don’t need to do it anymore, for they’re no longer dependent on the patronage of the Murdoch Empire to secure them a majority; yet the default position remains falling back on archaic assumptions that the prejudices of the traditional Tory shires must be catered to at all costs. Following in the clumsy footsteps of Iain Duncan Smith, another beneficiary of inherited wealth by the name of Jacob Rees-Mogg has enhanced his reputation as ‘Minister for the 18th century’ at the party’s annual conference with a casual dismissal of the needs of those who always stood to lose the most from the aftermath of the past year and-a-half.

At a point when National Insurance increases, rising energy prices and inflation are poised to dig deep into the piggy banks of the people least able to afford them, Reese-Mogg has been especially indelicate by issuing the far-from helpful advice that benefits are not ‘an insurance scheme’ during a conference debate on the cuts to Universal Credit; and when such statements emanate from a man not exactly familiar with the harsh realities of juggling household bills every month, they serve to reinforce the antiquated stereotype of both the uncaring Tory and the underclass dole-scrounger – despite the fact that upwards of 40% claiming benefits are actually in work. The impending end of the weekly £20 ‘Covid boost’ on Universal Credit has been criticised by some within the Conservative party, with an estimated 80,000 people on the cusp of poverty as a consequence, many of whom have been unable to earn a full wage for the past eighteen months due to lockdowns and Covid restrictions.

When it’s speculated that over £1,000 could vanish from the household income of the most affected, the Tories don’t do themselves any favours as saviours of ‘hard-working families’ when some of their Honourable Members engage their mouths without considering what comes out of them might sound like to the less privileged. The latest Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey claims the loss of the £20 uplift will be made up via a mere two hours additional work – a theory she obviously won’t be called upon to test out in person; meanwhile, the ongoing death toll of rejected disabled claimants declared ‘fit for work’ continues to cast a toxic shadow over a system that those with the power to change seem unwilling to change, perpetuating the perceived lack of empathy Ministers tend to exhibit towards those most in need of help. At the same time, the resumption of landlords being able to evict tenants who have fallen into rent arrears courtesy of lockdowns finds one-third of renters unable to keep up payments laying the blame squarely at the door of the pandemic policy.

Those who happened to be between jobs at the time of Lockdown Mk I weren’t eligible for the furlough scheme if they had voluntarily left their previous position rather than being laid off by lockdown, heaping further pressure on individuals and families sucked into a cycle of debt that wasn’t their own doing. Robert Jenrick, the former Housing Secretary, had said in May that no one should lose their home as a result of the pandemic, yet as soon as the ban on bailiff evictions ended that same month, people began losing their homes. 555 private and social landlord hearings in the county courts of England and Wales were observed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism during the summer, with 270 of them ending in an outright possession order and 88 of those orders citing the financial impact of Covid as the main factor in falling behind payments. There was such a backlog of hearings that most lasted barely ten minutes, which is hardly adequate time to contest a case or to decide someone’s immediate future. Despite the fact that the MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last year could see the direction the wind would take come the end of lockdown and recommended the law being changed so that judges would have discretion when it came to a fair and fitting verdict on each individual case, the Government ignored their advice.

A married couple recently profiled on the BBC News website had just become first-time parents on the eve of the first lockdown and went from a monthly income of £2,000 when both were in full-time work to surviving on £150 maternity pay during the interminable wait for a Universal Credit payment for the suddenly unemployed male breadwinner. Their rent stood at £450 a month and the inevitable happened during lockdown, with them eventually reaching £4,000 in rent arrears; served with a Section Eight order – giving a landlord grounds for repossession if the rent arrears number two months or more – the pair are now preparing for eviction. They are not alone. The swift turnover of hearings at the nation’s county courts – where possession orders can be stamped and certified in less than five minutes – makes for sober reading when it comes to the fate of those suddenly plunged into society’s relegation zone, few of whom fit the irrelevant old image of the ‘lifestyle choice’ scrounger of George Osborne’s imagination.

Another case covered in the BBC report concerned a woman whose usual job as an agency-employed executive PA was curtailed by lockdown; residing at a one-bedroom property in Hammersmith with a monthly rent of £1,600 meant her slide into rent arrears of £24,000 didn’t take long, though the case going against her at the local county court also left her having to pay £604 in interest as well as her landlord’s legal costs of £3,000. This individual has since found another job, but her credit rating is now as bad as the aforementioned married couple, who no longer have any savings to pay a deposit for a new home. The average rent arrears in the cases observed at the county courts by the Bureau of Investigate Journalism in July and August was around £6,500, though some far exceeded this amount. Naturally, the situation is also a headache for landlords themselves, with some tenants exploiting the crisis and playing the Covid card even when the pandemic has no bearing on their arrears, leaving courts often unable to distinguish between the ones who can’t pay and the ones who won’t.

As with every element of the inevitable fallout from closing down the economy for months on end since the spring of 2020, the already-delicate housing crisis was destined to ricochet through countless lives once payback time arrived; but such scenarios can be cruel levellers. I recall a TV report on Spain’s economic crisis in the wake of the financial crash of 2007/08, wherein many holding traditionally well-paid, middle-class jobs such as teaching were just as likely to be found sleeping on the streets or squatting in derelict properties as the more conventional casualties of capitalism one would sadly expect to be in dire straits. When people play by the rules, toe the line, pay their taxes, work hard and provide the backbone of the orderly society they venerate, some form of reward is anticipated, and that doesn’t necessarily have to translate as extreme wealth but simply not having to worry about their home being repossessed or never having to claim benefits. The Government on whose watch such people plummeted down the social ladder needs to remember the shock to the system these valuable members of the electorate have suffered will linger for a long time, and the way it publicly articulates its opinions on their predicament ought to be handled with care.

© The Editor

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A JACOBEAN COMEDY

Hard to believe now, but ITV’s late afternoon schedule once consisted of programmes aimed at an audience of schoolchildren, programmes regularly of the same high standard that appealed to the same viewers over on BBC1. Amidst the drama serials, comedies, cartoons and pop shows were documentaries, one of which in the early 1980s featured a precocious posh boy whose prematurely adult demeanour and stated ambition to be Prime Minister had my brother and me in stitches as we watched him being chauffeur driven to school whilst he perused the Financial Times. Not only did he seem to be a middle-aged Tory MP occupying the body of a young boy (probably not the first time that’s ever happened), but he was that most unenviable pubescent pariah – the Swot.

Other than ‘Poof’, Swot was perhaps the biggest insult that could be hurled in the direction of a pupil at the school of hard knocks that was my educational establishment. To actually derive pleasure from learning was definitely a no-no in the popularity stakes. Popularity was earned via three routes: being good at football, being good at fighting, and being a class comedian. I opted for the latter because of my lack of ability in the other two. It goes without saying that an appetite for knowledge being frowned upon is now something I realise denied me a great deal later in life, yet school for me and many of my contemporaries was more a case of survival than education. I knew the young chap starring on the aforementioned ITV documentary wouldn’t have lasted a day at my school, yet look where he is now.

It took a good thirty years or more before a reunion with a snippet of this documentary made me belatedly aware its star was Jacob Rees-Mogg. I was more aware of his father in the years immediately following its broadcast, largely as a result of William Rees-Mogg’s famous contribution to British pop culture when editor of the Times via his key intervention in the infamous attempt to imprison Mick Jagger on flimsy drug possession charges in 1967. His son was already well on the way to the path he’d outlined in the early 80s documentary, famously canvassing for a constituency in 1997 with the assistance of his nanny. He eventually entered Parliament at the 2010 General Election when he won the secure Tory heartland of North-East Somerset.

Post-New Labour, the careerist, conveyor-belt politician whose blatant and shameless thirst for power requires he or she to chime with public opinion in the most cynical fashion has become something of a catch-all criticism of MPs in general where the electorate are concerned. The popularity of the few genuine characters in today’s politics, the rare breed that eschew the formula and are defiantly independent of the perceived consensus – whether Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage – should come as no great surprise when their contemporaries are so interchangeably bland; the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader appeared to be the ultimate triumph over the politician bereft of any ideological beliefs, yet it is the right that has produced the majority of these mavericks, of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest PG Wodehouse creation to ensnare the popular imagination.

Like the much-missed art critic Brian Sewell before him, a large proportion of the attention Rees-Mogg has been able to command is based on the quaint way he speaks. Ever since Harry Enfield parodied the old-school RP accent once obligatory for BBC announcers and RADA graduates, the Queen’s English has been a source of humour and ridicule. Prior to the revolutionary impact of both ‘Coronation Street’ and The Beatles in the early 60s, anybody who emerged from what used to be called ‘humble origins’ would consciously modify and hide their regional accent if seeking a career in public office or the public eye. That changed forever fifty years ago, and even Old Etonians whose prevalence across politics and the media has reasserted itself in recent years avoid the speech patterns of their predecessors today; Cameron and Gideon both swung towards hideous ‘Estuary English’ when seeking the vote of the common man, and the current crop of public school Luvvies that dominate stage and screen could never be mistaken for Noel Coward.

When Jacob Rees-Mogg was running for Parliament in 2010, he was described by Camilla Long in the Sunday Times as ‘David Cameron’s worst nightmare’, representing every privileged Conservative cliché Dave was desperate to sweep under the carpet in his bid to re-establish One Nation Toryism; but the public could see through Cameron’s dishonest efforts at playing the bloke card; he couldn’t even remember which team he supported, after all. Nobody could ever imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg even being aware either Aston Villa or West Ham are football clubs because with Rees-Mogg there’s no pretence. He is a posh boy and isn’t ashamed of the fact he’s out of step with contemporary mores; his nickname of Minister for the Eighteenth Century probably isn’t one he objects to.

A Conservative Party understandably dissatisfied with the woeful leadership of Theresa May has recently been indulging in one of its perennial fantasy beauty contests as to who should replace the current lame duck at the helm; Rees-Mogg was a surprise front-runner, undoubtedly because he’s a ‘character’ and so odd that he stands out from the grey crowd. However, when quizzed on the weak spot of his religion, Rees-Mogg has stood his ground, preferring to stick rigidly to Catholic doctrine on the likes of abortion and homosexuality despite its potential damage to his fanciful Prime Ministerial ambitions. As I wrote when ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron came under similar fire, however, why not be fair and apply this interrogation to prominent Muslim politicians such as Sadiq Khan? Christianity is hardly unique amongst prehistoric faiths where certain issues are concerned.

Granted, if Rees-Mogg is so devout, why hasn’t he applied the approach of Jesus towards the poor and underprivileged when it comes to Tory cuts in those areas? As with many who proudly confess their devotion to religious scriptures, he often comes across as a cherry-picker of the bits that complement his own personal beliefs and conveniently overlooks those that don’t. One could argue he’s the token joke candidate in a leadership contest that isn’t even on the agenda at the moment, but that’s exactly what Corbyn was regarded as by many, so there’s no call for complacency. That said, the backbench is always far more conducive to the maverick mischief-maker; and Jacob Rees-Mogg has his natural home there, where he can sing the praises of the Corn Laws and filibuster his way into the wee small hours while the sun never sets on the Empire.

© The Editor