Being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018 is a double-edged sword for Ruth Davidson. On the one hand, it must be flattering to find herself described as “refreshing and rambunctious”, even if the judgment comes courtesy of Niall Ferguson, a man whose previous character references include suggesting the economist John Maynard Keynes’ homosexuality and childlessness rendered him indifferent to the welfare of future generations.
On the other, it does put an onus on her to kick her omnishambles of a party into touch. Surely a woman who sits alongside Kim Jong-un on a list of figures whose “time is now” will have the wherewithal to force her colleagues to own their mistakes; to relocate their moral compass; to look into the abyss and confront the terrifying emptiness at the core of their politics.
But, no. Judging by last week’s packed schedule of screw-ups, it will take more than influence – more even than rambunctiousness – to restore the Conservatives’ integrity. Has any government produced such a toxic blend of nihilism and incompetence? Has any government been more deaf to its own false notes or less possessed of the ability to see itself as others see it?
If you are looking for a measure of how low it has sunk, then Windrush is as good a starting point as any. The scandal has seen British citizens from the Caribbean, who helped rebuild the country after the Second World War, treated as criminals. It has blown away any lingering delusions of racial equality in much the same way as Stephen Lawrence’s murder did 25 years ago today.
Just listening to the stories – of jobs lost and cancer treatment denied; of families separated and funerals missed; of men and women sent “back” to a country that was never theirs – was enough to make your ears burn with shame. But for Theresa May, who introduced the “hostile environment” immigration policy while serving as home secretary, it was the catalyst for another round of buck-passing. Sure, there was an apology of sorts – May also oh-so-magnanimously assured those threatened with deportation they were still welcome in the UK. But at the heart of her statement was a lie: what happened to the children of Windrush was not an unfortunate hiccup, it was the inevitable consequence of anti-immigration rhetoric and a policy built on the premise that non-white people are illegal until proven legal, guilty until proven innocent.
Though it is true Labour doesn’t come out of this well either – the majority of its then MPs abstained on the 2014 Immigration Bill that forced landlords and employers to check on non-existent documents – it takes a special kind of slipperiness to try to shift the blame to the party that wasn’t in power, especially when Jeremy Corbyn and most of his front bench were among the handful who voted against it.
As May was flinging mud around, former Home Office chief of staff Nick Timothy “apparated” in the pages of the Telegraph in a misguided attempt to save his former boss, much like Dobby the House Elf does in Harry Potter. His piece insisting May was on holiday when the infamous “Go Home” vans were signed off, and that the decision was taken against her wishes, merely drew attention to one of the few Tory outrages no-one was talking about. Worse, it was later debunked by Business Insider which claimed that, while May had been abroad, she was kept informed of what was going on; and not only did she not disapprove, she asked for the language to be toughened up.
With the Home Office in meltdown, and current home secretary Amber Rudd acting as if some unrelated woman of the same name was running her department, what was needed was another controversy to distract from the original one. Secretary for Work and Pensions Esther McVey did the honours, telling the Scottish Parliament’s social security committee that women who had been sexually assaulted would be glad of the opportunity to get it off their chest during a natter with a clipboard-wielding stranger. Not only should victims stop complaining about having to publicly declare a third child as a product of rape in order to be exempted from the two-child cap on tax credits, they should be grateful for the free counselling. It’s a win-win situation, really. Just think how much money will be saved by the drop in demand for Rape Crisis Centres.
Black pensioners and victims of sexual violence are fair game to a government determined to deliver austerity and buy off the Ukip xenophobes. I’ll tell you who doesn’t appear to be fair game, though: companies that contribute to Conservative Party coffers. Hungarian Norbert Dombo might have made it on to HMRC’s most wanted list for failing to pay £174,000 of tax on smuggled cigarettes, but when French investigators wanted to raid the London offices of UK telecoms giant Lycamobile, they were told to take a running jump. The fact Lycamobile had given more than £2.2 million to the Tories since 2011 was mentioned in a letter sent to French officials but, of course, that had no bearing on the final decision and, in any case, the company stopped its donations in 2016.
I know what you’re wondering: while all this was going on, what was the party’s Woman of Influence doing to alter its fortunes or change public perceptions? Well, Thursday’s FMQs saw Davidson take Nicola Sturgeon to task over a single (and ultimately fruitless) meeting with Cambridge Analytica – as if we had all had our memories wiped clean and would not spot the flaw in this line of attack. What the Scottish leader, who has also been described as “an antidote to much that is wrong with the Conservative Party” was not doing was pointing out the inequity of the rape clause or the benefits of immigration.
There was not a single sign from her or anyone else that the ignominious events of last week had prompted its politicians to examine their own consciences. Though the government eventually promised to compensate affected members of the Afro-Caribbean community, it showed little insight into the fact that its approach to immigration – an approach best summed up by May and Rudd’s bout of deportation one-upmanship – has also impacted on people from other backgrounds, nor that the rape clause risks re-traumatising women who have already suffered enough.
There is no sign either that May’s days are numbered. Just before last year’s party conference, some right-wing newspapers were treating her as a goner, but six months on she seems untouchable. No matter how many mistakes she and her front bench colleagues make – no matter how many times they’re hit – they just keep on walking: a dead-eyed zombie government wandering through a hostile environment of its own creation.