One of the problems associated with trying to preserve what is left of one’s sanity under lockdown via a high degree of selectivity where the news media are concerned is that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on precisely what the great British public is thinking. Reading the Independent, Guardian and New European, and watching or listening exclusively to the BBC and Channel 4 news, doesn’t help very much when it comes to gauging just how much support there is for current government ministers or their policies. One assumes that a populist government would be anxious to run its policy proposals past focus groups representing ‘the people’ in the interest of maintaining its popularity, but can it be doing so in present circumstances? Or is it having to look for affirmation from the dwindling numbers of members in the Conservative Party whose average age was estimated by the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, in 2017 as 72 (although others suggest the rather lower figure of 57).* Now that Brexit is ‘done’, for ill or even worse ill, does Boris Johnson keep the likes of Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel in key posts in the cabinet, in spite of the levels of embarrassment they occasion, because he thinks the Tory-voting public like their policies, because he thinks the Conservative Party likes them, because they know too much about him, or just because he is beyond embarrassment?
Having kept Priti Patel at a safe distance from the 10 Downing Street press conferences since May, in spite of the fact that she is Home Secretary and thereby ultimately responsible to Johnson for the explaining and policing of lockdown measures, Boris Johnson absent-mindedly allowed her to front the press conference on Tuesday evening. In response to questions about how the lockdown rules should be interpreted, Patel confidently assured the nation that ‘The rules are actually very simple and clear’, and went on to elaborate on what is permitted: ‘And then of course outdoor recreation but in a very, very restricted and limited way, staying local.’ Given that the point of the questioning was to ask what ‘local’ is supposed to mean, and given that ‘recreation’ is explicitly ruled-out in the government guidance – ‘It is against the law to … leave home for recreational or leisure purposes…’ – this was less than helpful. Unsurprisingly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick appears not to think that the rules ‘are actually very clear and simple’: she recently told the BBC’s Today programme that, ‘Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.’
John Rentoul, The Independent’s chief political commentator, claims that Patel is popular among Conservative Party members, which raises the question as to whether there really is wider support beyond that very limited (in several ways) group for the short-sighted and xenophobic viciousness of Patel’s policies on asylum and immigration. So, to take just two examples this week, in The Independent on Sunday 10th Rob Merrick reported that, in line with Patel’s crack-down on immigration, our government had refused the EU’s offer of the ‘standard’ reciprocal visa-free exemption for performers and then, predictably, lied that it was the EU that had refused the UK’s request. This had been greeted with outrage from the music industry, which stands to lose a significant portion of its annual income as a consequence. On Wednesday 12th The Independent carried an excoriating critique of Patel’s ‘brutal’ approach to asylum-seekers which risks ‘whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people’ by no lesser figure than Caroline Noakes, Priti Patel’s Conservative predecessor as Home Secretary.** Where asylum-seekers are concerned, Noakes suggested that commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been ‘torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant’, citing a camp for asylum-seekers being set up on Ministry of Defence land in her Kent constituency that has no electricity or water mains and will not be provided with healthcare. Noakes concluded that asylum ‘is an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.’
So we find two markedly contrasting approaches within the same Conservative Party: the one brutal and inhuman – and one could cite reams more evidence against Patel in that regard; the other compassionate. If Rentoul is right about the Patel being popular with the membership of the Conservative Party, it seems reasonable to suppose that Caroline Noakes probably isn’t. But the critical question for me, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by white supremacists, is just how much support the Tories have among the great British public for their brutal and inhuman approach to immigration and asylum. One has to assume that, at the very least, Johnson and Patel must be confident that support for their brutality extends well beyond the limited membership of the Conservative Party. I would like to think that, despite the best efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the majority of the British public would, if it came to it, disavow a policy of calculated brutality and inhumanity towards exceptionally vulnerable people seeking refuge in our country. But I could be wrong. As I acknowledged at the outset, I don’t have a finger anywhere near the pulse of the general populace. If I am wrong, it really does matter. Because if I am wrong that would suggest that England is nurturing a hard core of white supremacists and assorted extremists who might well be capable of the violent storming of the Palace of Westminster at the behest of a maverick political leader, just as their counterparts in USA stormed the Capitol.