68. Owen Paterson’s Enduring Gift to the Nation

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

19 December 2021

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To lose one loyal but unpleasant supporter in a month may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness

In 1830, The Times wrote of the recently departed King George IV: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”.

This may have been a little harsh on the former Prince Regent. However, many of us would think that these words were highly apposite to the political demise both of Owen Paterson and of David Frost.

A Self-Inflicted wound

I will come back shortly to “Frosty the No-Man“. As for Paterson, the style and manner of his exit from the stage have led to a sequence of events which has dramatically shown up a government in trouble. In fact for many it has been like the moment where the Wizard of Oz is unmasked as a pathetic little man playing a fairly pointless confidence trick.

It is almost a truism to say that had Paterson taken his medicine or Johnson forced him to take it, he would by now be finishing his exclusion period from Parliament and perhaps the public would not have given the matter any thought. Instead, the Prime Minister tried to be pervert the course of justice and to make his MPs complicit, just in the run-up, as it turns out, to an avoidable by-election. As if that were not bad enough, the intervening weeks have been peppered with evidence of skulduggery, lying and deception. What more perfect storm could we have asked for?

Schadenfreude? Never!
The Shock of Shropshire

The North Shropshire by-election, entirely as a result of Paterson and Johnson’s behaviour, will enter the history books: A safe Tory seat which changed hands for the first time in 200 years and the seventh largest ever election swing at 34%. When Tory spokesmen try to shrug it off by saying that governments always lose ground in midterm by elections, the defence rings hollow. They are trying to take the public for fools.

From the Tory perspective, this result was catastrophic. Chesham and Amersham was significant, and was clearly in retrospect not a flash in the pan. North Shropshire was for the Liberal Democrats a much greater challenge. I can speak with feeling, having been involved in the campaign, albeit only by phone. The party had difficulty in getting activists to the area, which is far less accessible than C&A. In addition this was a campaign fought in a traditionally Brexit supporting area, indeed one which voted 60% for leave in the referendum. A year ago it would’ve been inconceivable for it to be represented by a Liberal Democrat. And yet the Tory vote dropped from Paterson’s 35,444 to 12.032. Of the remaining 23,412, most stayed home or swallowed their pride and voted Liberal Democrat out of sheer indignation.

A constituency Transformed. (Source: Wikipedia)

What has changed is that the damage of Brexit is becoming undeniable, particularly in a farming community like North Shropshire. Along with so many other groups farmers are realising that they have been shafted, and they’re not happy bunnies. The Liberal Democrats, long stigmatised as the party that wanted to “undo democracy” in the form of the referendum, are now vindicated, although many voters are perhaps not yet ready to put it in those terms. Brexit is no longer a vote winner. The opposition parties must learn from this and join the SNP in pointing out what is becoming obvious. Not necessarily saying “I told you so“ but asking the question “where are those benefits you were told we will be seeing? Maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg was right and we will not see them for 50 years – if ever?“.

And to turn the knife in the wound, right in the middle of all this the government has ratified the Australian trade deal with all the consequential harms to British farming and environmental standards, heralding it as a great triumph but leaving it to the Australians to tell us what is in it.

Leaving aside Brexit, there is hopefully another lesson here for the opposition parties. Labour at national level did little to support its candidate in the constituency. Shadow cabinet members such as Angela Rayner, who did choose to go there, were in the minority. Labour could have sabotaged the LibDem campaign, although in retrospect the 6000 majority would’ve been difficult to wipe out completely. It did not and I have no doubt Labour is delighted with the outcome, as it will have been with that in C&A, and the LibDems will have been pleased with that in Batley and Spen. At the present time both parties have a policy which prevents them from compelling local candidates to stand down. Indeed it may be that the Elections Bill will soon make electoral pacts more difficult (how on earth is that democratic?). Nonetheless the lessons from these recent by-elections are that with a bit of common sense on the part of opposition parties, the Tories are not invulnerable.

Of course people will say that seats won in by-elections revert to type in the next general election, and they do not change the political arithmetic to any significant degree when there is an 80 seat majority. That is to miss the point that change is possible, it is not too much to hope for.

So perhaps history will find that by his resignation Owen Paterson has given a gift to the nation.

A Government deFrosted

And then there is the Day that Frost Was Lost. The irony is that Frost’s stated reason for resigning has nothing at all to do with Brexit.

He was supporting a group of fundamentalist Tories who oppose Johnson not because he is corrupt, incompetent and damaging, but because he is trying, however inadequately, to implement public health measures against the most serious threat to the nation’s health since the Black Death. And the people in question, ironically described as the “Covid Recovery Group“ try to argue, along other things, that the public should not be compelled to wear masks for the protection of others as this would be an infringement of liberty. The same people have no hesitation in voting for the most Draconian measures ever proposed by a UK government, either in peacetime or wartime. I need hardly remind you of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will in effect make peaceful protests unlawful if the Secretary of State decides he/she does not like them; the Elections Bill which will dole facto to remove some of the checks and balances in our system, in particular the Electoral Commission; the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which will weaken the power of the courts to challenge the government of the day; and the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will give the Home Secretary the power to take away, without having to give a reason, the UK citizenship of some 5 million dual nationals. All of this is going ahead below the radar, and the public are learning little or nothing of it because of all the attention focused on sleaze.

Is the whole sleaze story, the parties, the Downing St decorations, and the jobs-on-the-side, really a dead cat? Some would say it is, I incline to the view that it is more cock up than conspiracy. After all, what Prime Minister, however craven, would deliberately sacrifice so much political capital unless he had a serious death wish?

Advisors are there to Advise

Recently Steve Baker and Joy Morrissey told us that government advisors such as Chris Whitty should not give advice but should say what they are told to say by politicians. Yet Whitty is just articulating in gentle terms what SAGE and the BMA are saying much more forceably.

I have to ask myself the question: do these Tory zealots really not understand the meaning of the word democracy, or are they just pretending? Finally in relation to Frost’s departure, any joy we may have felt seeing this man leave the stage has got to be tempered by the thought of who will replace him. Names like Teresa Villiers and Brexit hard man Steve Baker are being suggested. And what is worse, given the track record of this government, such suggestions may turn out not to be in the realms of satire but may actually come to pass.

Equally troubling is the sometimes voiced theory that Frost’s resignation is calculated, he has seen the vultures circling and made a deal with Sunak or whoever he thinks might be Johnson’s likely successor and that a comeback is in the offing. Perish the thought.

I would prefer to be optimistic and see it through the eyes of Tobias Ellwood: ‘An opportunity to press the reset button with the EU’. At the very least let us hope we will have someone in the post who has read and understood the Withdrawal Agreement and can make some pretence of being willing to abide by it.

Is this genuine? No denial yet. Nadine Dorries’s defence of BJ does not go down well with her Sparan friends

Lastly, leaked WhatsApps from the Spartans of the party are telling us their patience is exhausted. Will BJ even get yet another chance?

It will soon be 2 1/2 years since Boris Johnson became prime minister. It cannot be long before enough of his MPs wake up to the fact that that is enough.

Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Upcoming: 19th January. Details here.

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