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Want a preview of hell? Try watching squabbling Tories while the world burns.

Posted on July 20, 2022

The curtains are drawn while wind with the heat of a hairdryer rattles the open doors and windows. The TV news helicopter floats over a darkened, smoking London; reporters stand in cracked and parched reservoirs and southern Europe tries to stem raging forest fires. We interrupt this programme to bring you the latest instalment in the sixth-form popularity pageant that is the Tory leadership contest.

As I write, it looks like Sunak will face off against Liz Truss. The latter, apparently, is more likely to ring the chimes of the only electorate that now counts in this grotesque farce – Tory party members. It is this select, microscopic constituency who will be charged with electing the next Prime Minister.

The most optimistic estimates suggest that there are some 200,000 such members: more realistic assessments put it at around 160,000. So, at best, around 0.02% of the UK’s adult population will decide which of this crew of fidgety wannabees will be charged putting out the fires. One third of this membership lives in the south-east, more than two thirds of them are male and a generous estimate puts the average age at around 60. Unlike the diverse nature of the candidates, they are overwhelmingly white.

There is a lazy and dangerous trope among those millions of people justifiably disillusioned with mainstream politics – a belief  that they’re all the same anyway and none of it makes any difference. Whether it’s Truss, Sunak, Morduant or Dylan the dog, they’ll just look after the interests of their own while paying lip-service to half-baked notions of levelling up. Or down. Or levelling something somewhere. Such dismissiveness opens the door to the Johnsons, Trumps, Modis and Bolsonaros: yeah, they’ve got faults, but they get it done and they can even be a bit of a laugh. But while the ice caps melt and the crops fail, we’ve never been in greater need of serious, well informed and selfless leadership.

First, an admission. I’ve only tolerated clips from the ‘debates’. A lifetime of preparing nervous teenagers has left me with no further appetite for watching wooden parroting of pre-prepared, carefully coached podium stumblings. This is acutely so when, apparently, the only game in town seems to be how to convince the 160k that whatever tax they still pay won’t be too burdensome. I won’t insult you by pretending that I’m surprised by the complete absence of any imagination or inspiration in anything else they have to say.

Underpinning the thin nonsense from the shaking candidates is an unchallenged truth: we must have economic growth. Without such growth, the public services on which we all rely will wither even more alarmingly that they do at present. The ‘thinking’ behind this is that we can cut taxes and still have flourishing public services because with a strong economy we can use private investment to make those services work. And work even better than they do under the stewardship of those lazy, flabby public bodies.

The catalogue of mismanagement from privatised prison security to the flagrant pollution of rivers by profiteering water companies to the child-unfriendly exam factories of multi-academy trusts – and a thousand points in between – is as long as it is dispiriting. The idea that private does it sooo much better – a notion espoused just as enthusiastically by Labour – has now held sway for decades. Propped up by the dogma of delivery – a particular Truss favourite – we are asked to disbelieve our own experience and accept that this is the only workable way of organising the services one might expect from a highly developed economy in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

As news outlets entered the arms’ race of where the highest temperature had been recorded, only occasional bulletins slipped in any brief discussion of global warming – the phrase now airbrushed from political discourse in favour of the tamer, less aggressive ‘climate change.’  Like I say, I can’t claim to have watched every gruelling syllable, but reports suggest that all candidates expressed commitment to Cop 26 and recycling their own cardboard while, in the case of Truss, looking the scientific evidence square in the face and deciding that fracking was just fine. We need fuel resources. For economic growth.

And there’s the rub. While any half-sensible parent’s or grandparent’s nightmares are haunted by the irreversible mess we’re leaving behind, the best the political class can come up with is more of the same but with another coloured bin. Growth that is dependent on fossil fuels will burn us all; energy supplies buffeted by profiteering corporations will leave us all in the dark; planning and building permission granted through the same old networks will build over every last park and playing field.

Nobody in their right mind would expect a high Tory looking for the approval of middle Englanders to even whisper the heresy of a challenge to the current model of economic growth. The last person on the big political stage to do so was some bumbling old allotment owner and even his own party doesn’t want him and his crazy ideas any more.

Whoever the next comfortable, smug inhabitant of No. 10 turns out to be, s/he probably won’t be there for long. Their period of tenure will be marked by the same old lurch from disaster to catastrophe, punctuated by systemic incompetence. In the meantime, activists and those proposing that we need system change as a necessary prerequisite of climate change are the voices we should be heeding – while adding our own to their chorus. If we’re waiting for Sunak, Truss or Starmer for the big ideas, hell will have become fresher than East Anglia.

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