Don't Worry About Brexit, Insist Terrifying Tory Fantasists
And some of the other mad stuff we've heard at conference so far.
Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photo: Keith Morris News / Alamy Stock Photo
Be afraid, be very afraid. As the un-dead Conservative party gathers for its annual conference in Birmingham, there are 178 days until what could be a disastrous Brexit. The clear message coming from Brexiteers is that there's nothing to worry about – so, unless you implicitly trust a bunch of fantasist Ayn Rand fan-boys, alarm bells should be ringing.
A meeting hosted by the Brexit Central website saw speakers rail against "Project Fear 2.0" – the nay-sayers and boo-boys who continue to talk Blighty down and deny the obvious truth of Brexit's impending success.
Perhaps the simplest iteration of this argument has appeared not in the heavily securitised conference centre, but in the 900 JD Wetherspoon pubs that dot this Sceptred Isle. A pamphlet distributed in the pro-Leave pubs includes warnings from known Remaniacs such as the British Retail Consortium and the Resolution Foundation, that consumers will have to pay more for products after Brexit. Stamped over these warnings are the words "Nonsense", "Untrue" and "Whopper".
Who can truly say they wouldn't like to be able to simply stamp "Whopper" on the forehead of everyone who disagrees with them? Alas, life isn't always that simple.
Brexit-loving Spoons-baron Tim Martin spoke with the same clarity and insight at a rally with Brexiteer Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on Tuesday – the original Brexit odd couple. While Martin didn't leave me totally convinced that it'll work out – because hey, you can just get your brandy from Australia – perhaps what we should fear is not a Brexit gone horribly wrong, but a Brexit gone horribly right. Because every bit as scary as a doomsday soundbite about a Mad Max Brexit is the vision of the apparently sun-dappled uplands presented by leading Brexiteers.
At conference, Jacob Rees-Mogg draws in the crowds. His name on an event leaflet is enough to generate queues around the block, and as he enters a room he's greeted with enthusiastic applause and a wall of camera flashes.
At a rally hosted by the Brexit Central website on Monday, he railed against the "vassalage" of a soft-Brexit, and said, "What we want to make a success of Brexit is a Tory Brexit… Fundamentally, Brexit will be a success because Brexit is a conservative thing to be doing."
The next day, Andrea Jenkyn (who nicknamed her son "Brexit Clifford", as he was born on the day Article 50 was implemented), Priti Patel (stepped down as International Development Secretary because she held undeclared "freelance" meetings with Israel) and Owen Paterson (former environment secretary who said there are advantages to global warming) spoke to a meeting of the Bruges Group, a Thatcher-loving anti-EU think-tank. I watched two years ago as the Bruges Group held a small meeting addressed by Breitbart journalist James Delingpole, who was applauded for not believing in climate change by the crowd of cranks. This year, the meeting packed out an auditorium and there was a government whip in the audience taking notes, presumably on how best to placate the hard right of the party. "We are the mainstream," Patterson repeatedly told a room that seemed to be about a third UKIP members.
It's not only the grassroots that are a cause for concern, but their corporate and think-tank hangers on. They're ensuring that the conference fringe is asking a number of stupid questions: "Is Brexit a victory for vaping?" is the title of one vape-sponsored panel. "Does the Conservative Party care about social justice?" is another. Well, if you have to ask…
An event about attracting women to the Conservatives, discussing "the economic factors affecting which party 51 percent of the party will vote for at the next general election", lists a 60 percent male panel. Then there's, "Is the Conservative Party making work pay?" which is less a stupid question and more a hostage to fortune. Wetherspoons is sponsoring that panel, with Tim Martin speaking. This week, Wetherspoons staff will go on strike, demanding £10 an hour and union recognition, calling poor Tim a "millionaire shitlord".
For all the big issues of the day, there are non-answers from the ideologues of zombie-capitalism. A meeting about AI in government and changing the public perception of "Terminator"-style robots was hosted by ATOS, an outsourcing corporation perfectly capable of impersonal bureaucracy without needing computers, as shown by its administration of the Work Capability Assessment, which declared benefits claimants "fit for work" shortly before they died.
Housing Minister Kit Malthouse declared the much criticised Help to Buy "successful and popular", possibly because property companies that get rich off Help to Buy sponsored the conference.
As we hurtle towards climate doom, the TaxPayers' alliance held a meeting about why we should frack more.
While the lobbyists are dragging us determinedly towards dystopia, few in the party are setting out anything visionary.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox, presented by Conservative Voice as "the antidote to project fear", said that "young voters in particular want us to have a positive vision of the future, not a dark vision of the alternative". He then proceeded to fill a large amount of his speech with a red-scare against Jeremy Corbyn, warning of "one of the most pernicious, unpleasant, dangerous and damaging alternative governments that we've ever had in our history". Much more unpleasant than the Tories, apparently – even though the party of government is maintaining its ties with reactionary parties in Europe, post-Brexit.
A meeting of the European Conservatives and Reformers – the Tories' grouping in the European Parliament – was chaired by Anders Vistisen MEP from the nationalist Danish People's Party, which is undertaking a number of xenophobic measures against the country's Muslim "ghettos". "We're leaving the EU, not our political allies," read a leaflet. Those allies currently include the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party, among others. So, you see, Brexit doesn't have to mean losing touch with Europeans.
The only person who appears capable of stapling together an animated being out of chunks of this decaying mess is Rees-Mogg. He's taking conference like some reverse Terminator, spat forward from the 1910s to warn us of the evils of abortion and the benefits of chlorinated chicken.
Along with that horrifying social-conservatism, he presents a more charismatic right-wing argument for the democracy of Brexit than anyone else, along with advocating low tariffs and low immigration to help the poor, for whom he has some kind of patrician regard. This is all served up with that nanny-loving Edwardian affectation that charms his fans and somehow stops him seeming demagogic. At the Leave Means Leave rally, Rees-Mogg played down comparisons between "my modest entrepreneurial efforts" and Martin's Ruddles empire, perhaps embarrassed at the cool £100 million his net worth has been estimated at, or indeed the savvy moving of the City firm he helped found to Ireland before Brexit.
It's a heady mix. At the Brexit Central rally he told a little anecdote about visiting Chequers and being given Garibaldi biscuits by Prime Minister Ted Heath when he was two years old. He seamlessly pivots from such moments to railing against the establishment, before it's back to Brexit as "Disraelian Conservatism" and Britain needing "a proper, red-blooded Conservative approach to governing".
Forget Project Fear. Don't panic. Don't be afraid. It'll all be over very soon.