In the early 1990s Matthew Parris’s sketches must have been my favourite bit in The Times. Sometimes incredibly funny and always perceptive about the dying Major administration – in fact, I just spent 10 minuts googling for some preNet piece where he is spectacularly rude about Teresa Gorman.
Now his columns seem to be no more than strategic advice for the Tories – begging the question, in other words, about whether they are what the country needs, and instead moving straight onto the question of How to Get them There. So it is with his latest, the theme of which is: “should Cameron play Mr Angry or Mr Thoughtful?” Ooh, just what I had been worrying about. Talking of Cameron’s reaction to the Budget, Parris writes:
Few — and certainly no Conservative — who watched Mr Cameron’s passionate and scathing response to Mr Darling’s Budget would have failed to be impressed by the energy. The outburst sounded spontaneous. There was no illogic — within it was a rational argument and plenty of facts and figures
Noooo! It was because of Cameron’s ‘facts and figures’ that we learned how the Tory leadership either doesn’t understand money illusion as well as Doctor Evil’s wicked Henchman, or does understand it but is sufficiently cynical that they will use blatantly faulty comparisons to make impressive-sounding points.
Matthew Parris later worries about whether shows of ‘Angry of Tunbridge Wells’ fury are in fact good fot the Tory image. In fact, by slying referring to ‘turning up the volume’, he reminds us that anger has been a perpetual feature of the Tory opposition to New Labour; IDS used the phrase in 2003 when, in retrospect, everything was going swimmingly. The Conservatives have been angry for ages, about Europe, immigration, the Pound, fox hunting – but never the build up in private debt that got us in this mess. Most of it, let’s be frank, was anger about being out of power.
In a column full of ferocious Conservative-criticism like
“Cameron has steel and command … Wednesday’s rant was magnificent … brainy Mr Osborne will hvae had 18 hours to pull Darling’s figures apart … there was something in Mr Osborne’s morning-after-response, something in the coolness, that I couldn’t help admiring”
he gives away the shaky economic foundations of his arguments with the classic columnist’s vanity – that of knowing what 50 million people are thinking about.
“The electorate are feeling sober serious anxious. Debt is the big issue in their minds, and they know the country is running out of money”.
This is way too simple minded. The Government may be running out of borrowing capacity. The country will feel the effects of a public sector squeeze. But people do not wake in the night worrying that debt service will cost 5% of GDP rather than 4%. They worry about things that abrupt and catastrophic and impossible to hedge: like being chucked out of their jobs. The Conservative economic prognosis of the last year would have greatly sharpened that risk – and probably done nothing for the debt.
Moreover, the statement ‘the voters are right to be angry’ sits strangely with the prevailing mood. The real pain of the recession seems to have been postponed. Unemployment is <8%. There is certainly anxiety about the years ahead, but communities have not been torn to bits yet, like they were in earlier recessions.
I could understand anger in the late 1990s, when a supposedly wealthy society could coexist with a health service that left so many people dying on the waiting list. Other countries just as prosperous did not need to impose this nightmare on their populations. Why us? I remember that anger.
Parris is still, clearly, a wonderful writer, one who has seen it all from the inside and out. I appreciate he is an actual Conservative. But by begging the question about whether they are right for Britain, and instead opining about their message, he alienates the reader. Tory party briefings are a turnoff to 60% of the population – no 61%, no 62, 63, 64% – and we can get them at Conservative Home. This is from a frustrated would-be fan – for if they had not undiscovered Keynesianism at precisely the wrong moment, and shown no inclination to abandon daft plans like an IHT cut or bungs for the married, it would be more difficult to argue against them deserving a stint in power.
I quite enjoy the Times, as a light more comic-y weekend alternative to the FT. Unlike Hopi, I really enjoy Giles Coren. But if they want to start charging for this sort of content, it can’t run off columns where you can predict not only the conclusions but also the premises.