By rights, the most cringeworthy moment of the Conservative Party conference ought to have been Theresa May boogying her way up to the podium to the strains of Abba’s Dancing Queen. Yes, we got the message: here is a woman who can make fun of her own failings.
There have been many incidents in the past year more worthy of self-criticism than her clumsy footwork during her trip to South Africa. There was the whole deport-the-Windrush- generation-back-to-the-West-Indies scandal for a start. The one where British citizens who had paid taxes all their lives suddenly found themselves without work, without a home or on an aeroplane back to a country they left as children. And there was the complete failure to come up with any viable Brexit deal. You would have understood if the Abba tune May had chosen to reflect her premiership was Why Did It have to Be Me? But were she not tone-deaf as well as rhythm-challenged, she would have seen how tasteless it was to look as though she was “having the time of [her] life” as she steered the country towards an iceberg.
With the volume turned down, May could just as easily have been conducting the orchestra on the deck of the Titanic, a proposition far more in harmony with the general mood. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that those delegates who weren’t already scrapping over the lifeboats were singing along to Nearer My God To Thee as the prow of the great ship SSUK slowly sank beneath the water.
To get back to the point, though. May’s self-conscious sashaying may have been humiliating, but it wasn’t even close to being the most self-debasing act of the day. For that achievement, we have to look to Ross Thomson, Tory MP for Aberdeen South and fanboy extraordinaire. For some reason apparently unknown to Boris Johnson – who seemed barely to acknowledge his existence – Thomson appointed himself minder to the former foreign secretary as he made his way through a press scrum towards the fringe meeting some interpreted as the launch of a leadership bid.
The way Thomson and a handful of others attached themselves to Johnson reminded me of that prize-winning analogy once used to explain the Higgs Boson mechanism; the analogy involved Margaret Thatcher moving through a cocktail party, attracting more and more hangers-on – aka mass – as she went. At Birmingham International Conference Centre, the hangers-on took the phrase a bit too literally. Thomson hung on so limpet-tight you could scarcely see where Johnson ended and he began. Later he tweeted “I was a massive fan of the #Bodyguard (sic), but I never thought I’d be taking it literally.” At first I thought he had got the TV drama confused with the 1980s film of the same name, because from the back it looked for all the world as if Johnson was carrying Thomson, as Kevin Costner carried Whitney Houston. Then again maybe he was thinking about the TV series. The intimacy certainly recalled the scene where David Budd and the Home Secretary (Keeley Hawes) have adjoining rooms, and she suddenly appears in the doorway, touching herself provocatively. Although, in this case, the roles would have been reversed.
Either way, Thomson is starstruck; so much so that he is prepared to alienate the entire Scottish Party for the chance to share the same firmament as the Eton-educated egotist. On the day of Johnson’s speech, his Twitter timeline was a cauldron of sycophancy. “In his characteristic style [Boris] injected some much needed energy, optimism, passion and enthusiasm to a flat conference. The reaction in the hall was electric,” Thomson wrote, while quoting others who said Johnson had “stolen the limelight”.
In response to revelations that the Scottish Tories were engaged in Operation “Arse” – a campaign to ensure Johnson will not become Prime Minister – because they believe his leadership would increase the support for independence, Thomson referred to them as “arseholes”. So keen was he to touch the hem of Johnson’s sumptuous raiments that he cast off party unity like a shabby old coat.
Meanwhile, playing the role of lickspittle over in the Labour camp is Chris Williamson. On BBC Question Time he said – to significant booing – that Jeremy Corbyn was the best leader the party had ever produced before adding – for overkill – that he would make the greatest prime minister the country had ever seen. That is a bold claim on the behalf of a man who cannot get many of his own MPs to back him.
Williamson’s devotion knows no bounds; he has defended Corbyn against critics who accuse him of mishandling the anti-Semitism allegations and has been touring the country demanding that any MP who does not support him should face deselection. Corbyn has called him “a great friend”, but that did not prevent him having to step down as shadow fire minister after he suggested council tax for the highest value homes in the country should be doubled.
The intriguing thing is that, by and large, women do not seem to attract, or engage in, the same degree of hero-worship. It is difficult to imagine Nicola Sturgeon moving through a room with – let’s say at random – Ash Denham clinging desperately to her arm. May too is free from yes-women endorsing her every word; although that may be for a different reason.
Men like Thomson and Williamson, however, are doubly odious; they are prepared to defend the indefensible just to be close to those they are in thrall to; and they lack the intelligence to think for themselves or the gumption to strike out on their own.
Yet in some cases, their convictions are so malleable, they change with wind. For example, look at Thomson’s Twitter feed now and it clearly states that, with Scottish Labour’s reshuffle “the only credible alternative government to the divisive SNP is @RuthDavidsonMSP and her great @ScotTories team”.
Sorry, didn’t you just brand them arseholes?
The problem for those who hope to bask in reflected glory is that coat-tailing earns little respect from colleagues or from the electorate. Rumour has it that Thomson – who took his seat from Callum McCaig last year – is already being nicknamed “SNP gain”.
Whether their idols’ star rises or falls, the liggers and the leechers, the bag-carriers and the self-styled bodyguards will always be bringing up the rear.