This afternoon, Labour will move a motion of no confidence in the Government – and Keir Starmer has no need to prepare a speech, as he may tell the Commons at the start of the debate.
“I was going to explain why we have no confidence in the Government, Mr Speaker,” he may begin. “But I’ve no need to – since it’s clear that its Ministers have no confidence in their colleagues, and this Government has no confidence in itself.”
“Let’s start with the Foreign Secretary. Here’s her view of her own Government’s economic policy. “Rishi, you have raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years. That is not going to drive economic growth.” That’s what she thinks. That’s what she believes. How do we know? Because yesterday evening she confided her view to the whole country on Iive TV.”
“So there it is. The Foreign Secretary disagrees with the policy to which she is full signed up as a member of this Government. Then there’s the Chancellor – the man who didn’t take Covid fraud seriously, ignored warnings from his colleagues and cost the taxpayer over £17 billion.”
“How do we know? Because his former junior Minister, the honourable member for Saffron Walden, blurted it out on TV yesterday evening. Perhaps the former Chancellor was too busy at the time wondering which the Foreign Secretary regrets more – being a former Liberal Democrat or voting Remain…”
At this point, I will draw a veil over Starmer’s line of attack. How he and the Labour benches will relish it! And remember: these are merely words. Wait until Labour, the Remain fanatics, Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the Conservatives’ legions of foes get around to clipping the quotes from the debate – and retweeting them into infinity.
Why on earth did the Conservative candidates in this contest sign up to be the victims of this political version of The Hunger Games? (It isn’t even clear if there’s a Katniss Everdeen to hand.) I’m afraid the answer is a) none of the candidates dared stand up to the broadcasters, even if they wanted to, and b) the institutional Party hasn’t the clout to put the stop to it.
Did it not occur to any of the candidates and their teams, when they saw the ITV format, that it was the equivalent of the Hunger Games’ cornucopia gambit – in which the contestants bludgeon, knife, shoot and strangle each other to death in order to get at vital supplies? Having the nastiest punchline might floor your opponent. But will it help you form a stable government if you win?
Tory MPs and activists will have watched in horror as several of the candidates flung buckets of manure over each other. Or tore into the record of the Government in which all of them bar one have served. Or sought to distance themselves from policies which they have supported, or are committed to support.
Or publicly snubbed the leader who all but one of them have served in office. If the curse of the membership stage of this election is set to be that it will end, in effect, before activists have had a chance to get to know the candidates, the curse of the Parliamentary stage is that the TV debates may keep candidates in the contest who might otherwise drop out.
Tom Tugendhat has fought a lively campaign and will surely make Cabinet when the voting concludes. But he is not going to make the final two of the contest. So why has he clung on to fight the third Parliamentary ballot today, even though his support fell in the second? Surely the airtime and exposure he is winning are part of the explanation.
“Looking at the papers, in future CCHQ should negotiate with broadcasters on formats of debates. It is best placed to broker a format which doesn’t disintegrate into a blue-on-blue knifefight,” says one observer. Amen to that.
I suspect CCHQ is embroiled in seeking to ensure that the ballot takes place without fraud and error. Which would explain why it’s desparate for an early vote; for this would give it more time to catch and correct any errors.
Sky is due to host, heaven help us, a third Hunger Games debate tomorrow evening. The candidates should probably agree to junk it; certainly, if the format is carnivorous. And the institutional party should grip proceedings – tough when it has no authority over the candidates, I know.
The legend has it that during the 1990 leadership election, some Conservative poll ratings actually went up. That may have been because the three candidates, John Major, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd were more or less on the same political page.
It is to the credit of this contest that it is offering the Party and the country a wider menu to choose from. But this is likely to be of little use if the candidates – maddened, hyped up and triggered by the hysterical culture of this social media age – make corpses of each other. Leaving Starmer to tour the smoking landscape like an exultant President Snow.
11am update: Tomorrow evening’s Sky debate has been cancelled.