the campaign that shame forgot

Our pick of the election lowlights so far
Michael Savage, Groon, Dec 8 2019

Boris Johnson. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

From the stream of misinformation to the absurd pledges, the 2019 election was the campaign that shame forgot, and the electorate wished they could do likewise. It has seen Labour and the Tories fight over whether anti-Semitism or Islamophobia was the less appealing quality in a potential party of government. So divorced from reality have some protagonists become that one Tory minister said he didn’t know whether Jeremy Corbyn actually planned to shoot rich people. It seems unlikely: the Labour leader has pledged to grow 2 billion extra trees, and they aren’t going to plant themselves. And while it is not unknown for anti-social behaviour to become an election issue, when one of the candidates is caught urinating in the street, it’s probably time to pack the political class into a cab and send them home for their own good. If only that were an option. With the election days away, the result remains as unpredictable as a headcount of prime ministerial offspring. So, in the spirit of electoral masochism, the Observer looks back at the lowlights of the campaign in full.

Theme of the campaign
Disinformation. There was a time when the purveyors of fake news used sophisticated algorithms, rogue states and armies of online bots to propagate misleading nonsense. This was the election that proved they needn’t have bothered. Much quicker to make the untruths front and centre of the campaign, pushed by a crack team of ministers chosen for their pliability, lack of wit and jaw-dropping shamelessness. Let’s recap. Having promised not to send a letter asking for a Brexit delay, which proved to be untrue, Boris Johnson piled into the election pledging 40 new hospitals. Untrue. He then made the untrue claim that there would be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, before stating that Labour would spend £1.2t, a claim that proved to be … you get the picture. Since then, many others have warmed to the theme. The top effort came from Tory chairman James Cleverly, who defended a video of Keir Starmer doctored to make it look as if he couldn’t answer questions on Brexit, by saying it was a joke. Cleverly’s outrageous claim was never going to convince anyone. Labour’s Brexit policy was a joke long before Tory HQ got involved.

Interview of the campaign
Look no further than Johnson’s magisterial interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. He ducked, he swerved. Johnson ghosted past Neil like he wasn’t even there! Because he wasn’t. The interview hasn’t happened, owing to No 10’s view that scrutiny is a quaint throwback to a time when prime ministers were expected to know the size of their immediate family. If Napoleon’s advice was never to disrupt one’s enemy when they are making a mistake, Tory advisers certainly aren’t going to bother the electorate when they’re on the cusp of a faceplant. Those inside the CCHQ bunker are terrified that even breathing out too conspicuously risks disrupting the inexplicable universal imbalance that has Johnson on course for Downing Street.

Policy of the campaign
Free broadband! Billions for pensioners! Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has thrown the kitchen sink at convincing voters to back Labour, though the offer of free kitchen sinks is being held back for the last few days of the campaign. Should Labour win the election, Britain is either on course for socialist utopia, or it’s about to become the nation-state version of the Fyre Festival. For the uninitiated, that was a botched music event which promised wealthy millennials the party of a lifetime on a paradise island. They arrived to find dystopian scenes of uninhabitable tents, sodden beds and shortages of food and water. The disaster was created by a messianic leader promising the earth, getting in way over his head and failing to change course when it was obvious his plans were unachievable. So there really aren’t any obvious comparisons with Labour here. The sorry saga ends with the wealthy fleeing in their private jets, while the locals, who had hoped it would bring much needed prosperity – are left footing a big bill. I’m still talking about Fyre Festival, obviously.

Claim of the campaign
Get Brexit Done. It’s cobblers, of course, given that even if Johnson passes his Brexit agreement (aka the easy bit), it begins the painful business of deciding what life outside the EU will actually look like. But being untrue has morphed from a political problem to an absolute prerequisite in the Conservative soundbite stakes. The problem with Johnsonian misinformation is that it can take a long time to catch up with him. Take his comments from 1995, in which he described the children of single mothers as “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”. We’re still waiting for an apology for that one, after Johnson concluded that an election campaign “isn’t the time” to discuss what he actually thinks of the electorate. Cue sighs of relief from his team. On that timeline, we should still be waiting for an apology over Johnson’s Brexit pledges in 2043, which incidentally is likely to coincide with the latest round of talks over Britain’s EU trade deal.

Gaffe of the campaign
Kudos to Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane, who got a ticking off from police for urinating in the street, thereby handing us a useful metaphor for the election. But the win goes to the Lib Dems, who have proved that there is no opportunity so big that it cannot be, in the parlance of the prime minister, “spaffed up the wall”. Their pledge to revoke Brexit should they win a majority was so toxic on the doorstep that candidates have been busy reassuring voters that no one would be stupid enough to elect that many of them. Let’s not forget that it was the Lib Dems who precipitated this election all those six weeks ago. A case of turkeys not only voting for Xmas, but offering to turn on the oven and spend the night soaking in a bath of sage and aromatics.

Revelation of the campaign
Huge news as some of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party MEPs quit over their party’s strategy. The notion that Farage had a strategy was a shock. His party’s 2% poll rating proves that it’s chiming with the electorate, whatever it is. A big reveal, too, from Ukip campaign coordinator Freddy Vachha, who pledged to wage “war by air and sea” for Brexit – suggesting its grand election plan is targeting key marginals in Dunkirk and Calais. Yet 2019 was the election that revealed that Johnson’s reputation as “the Heineken Tory” is at risk. If it means he’s a politician who can reach parts of the electorate other Tories can’t, then perhaps not. If it means he’s a politician who occasionally sounds like he’s five pints in, then maybe. Accidental encounters with real voters saw Johnson told “leave my town” and “I don’t want to meet you”. As online admirers have pointed out, for a man so opposed to socialism, Johnson displays an admirable willingness to be publicly owned. His lacklustre rendition of Wheels on the Bus at a nursery was also seized upon. His problem is that there’s a different class of nursery rhyme at Eton, where The Grand Old Duke of York isn’t a song, but one’s godfather.

Good campaign
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, has had a belter, as leaders of other parties demonstrated they didn’t give a stuff about the union, either. Johnson’s Brexit plans put a border down the Irish Sea, while Corbyn has signalled that a new Scottish independence referendum won’t be offered in the first year of a Labour government – hugely reassuring for unionists. But the winner has to be Tory minister Mims Davies who, before the campaign had even begun in earnest, had turned her seat from a risky marginal to a solid Tory hold. What was behind this political mastery? A ground operation? Segmented online ads? Sheer force of personality? Much simpler, actually. Davies quit the seat of Eastleigh for the safer ground of Mid Sussex. What was it about the constituency’s 20,000 majority that attracted Davies? We’ll probably never know.

Bad campaign
Highly commended is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who achieved the impossible by falling foul of his party’s rulings on acceptable conduct. His sin was suggesting the victims of the Grenfell disaster should have applied “common sense” and ignored expert advice not to leave the burning building. This risked alerting the electorate to the possibility that the Tories, a party whose leading lights talk mainly in Latin, may not have the interests of the poor at heart. Bizarrely, Rees-Mogg recently re-emerged in a brief video shot in front of a stone circle. A baffling relic from a time long past, whose very reason for being remains hotly debated. Yes, Rees-Mogg really has been an enigma in this election.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: ‘bizarre’. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Johnson delivers 20-minute barrage of mansplaining and manspreading
John Crace, Groon, Dec 8 2019

After being subjected to a 20-minute audio-visual barrage of near constant mansplaining and manspreading, Sky’s Sophy Ridge finally got to ask a question without being talked over or interrupted. A month ago, she had asked Boris Johnson to name the naughtiest thing he had ever done. Back then, the prime minister had asked for more time to think about it as he was so spoiled for choice. So now he had a chance to review his previous, perhaps he would like to come clean? Boris smirked, tugged nervously at his pre-tousled hair and spread his thighs even wider apart. Both knees were now only visible in a wide-angle shot. He babbled incoherently, playing for time that he didn’t have. In desperation, he turned around and begged his off-camera advisers to help him out. They all tried to avoid catching his eye. Where to start? Finally inspiration came to him. There may have been one or two occasions on which he had ridden his bicycle on the pavement. Something he deeply regretted and would be punishable with a whole life sentence under a new Conservative law and order crackdown. “Cycling on a pavement?” a startled Ridge repeated. Did the prime minister really think that was a more serious offence than conspiring to get a journalist beaten up? Or getting Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe a longer sentence in an Iranian jail? Or being sacked for making up stories as a journalist? Or being sacked as a minister for lying to his party leader about his affair with Petronella Wyatt? Or lying to the Queen? Or wilfully inflicting a Brexit deal on the country in which even he didn’t believe? Or refusing to take responsibility for numerous affairs and children? Or using racist and sexist language? Or misconduct in public office with Jennifer Arcuri?

And as these were just the misdemeanours that were a matter of public record, presumably he was more than happy to admit to them all. Clearly nothing in there to give a normally functioning lying sociopath a sleepless night. But who knew what else Boris might have tucked away in his back catalogue? The dodgy demos? The Dominic Raab basement tapes? Up till then it had been a standard interview for the prime minister. One in which his narcissism had been so out of control he had barely appeared to notice there was an interviewer in the same room as him. Sophy who? Give it half an hour and he wouldn’t even be able to remember her name. Ridge looked genuinely troubled at times. Not just by the fact that she and her viewers had yet again been gaslit by someone so clearly incapable of either empathy or talking in coherent sentences, but also by the probability that he would still be prime minister in four days’ time. How was it possible a country could so fall from grace that it could elect as leader a man who would brazenly tell the lies everyone else was too ashamed to say out loud?

How can we trust you, Ridge asked. Even before she had finished talking, Boris began on his routine patter. We could trust him precisely because everyone knew he was pathologically untrustworthy. Someone whose whole life had been a case study in betrayal. Of himself and others. The UK knew where it stood with him. He was the hollow man who would say whatever was needed to get him through the moment, even if he found himself contradicting himself 30 seconds later. A bloated, degraded figure without qualities on whom anyone was free to superimpose their own hopes and prejudices. We went through all the usual suspects. The 50,000 nurses that weren’t 50,000. The 20,000 extra police that would leave things just a bit more crap than they were in 2010. Steve Barclay and all trade experts were idiots who didn’t understand the first thing about the Northern Irish border. He had never been hostile to immigrants. It hadn’t been him who had threatened the arrival of 5 million Turks during the referendum campaign. And so on and so on. It gets so tiring pointing out the same lies, day after day. But if you don’t they eventually get accepted as truths. “We’re running out of time,” said Ridge mercifully, as Boris continued to riff over her trying not to answer if he would resign if he didn’t win a majority. Though he was disappointed not to have an opportunity to expand on his Sunday Times exclusive that once we had left the EU in January, the UK would have the biggest shag fest ever. This was the real Brexit dividend. A campaign that had always been close to his heart, and one that he would be proud to spearhead. He would lead the Great Impregnathon. He was even hoping some of it might be televised. O brave new world, that has such people in’t!

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