Dani Garavelli: Truss and Sunak - who can stick it hardest to the worst-off?
TUNBRIDGE Wells is a parody of poshness; a place famous for “polo, private schools and The Pantiles” - a colonnaded Georgian mall, with gourmet restaurants and antique shops.
The Kent town has also long been a byword for narrow conservatism, the “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” tag capturing a particular blend of nimbyism and moral outrage.
This, then, was the perfect location for Rishi Sunak to let his mask slip. Speaking to grassroots party members, in the shade of a large tree, the former Chancellor said out loud what we had known all along: that the people of Tunbridge Wells are the Tories’ people; and that the party’s “levelling up” agenda was always a joke at the expense of those it secretly despises.
What Sunak said was that, under Labour, all the funding had been “shoved” into deprived urban areas. But he would change all that. He’d fatten up the town with scraps stolen from the plates of the hungry. He'd grease their palms with oil siphoned from other people's tanks. Tunbridge Wells would be overlooked no more.
The leaked clip was shocking, but only because Sunak’s dog whistle rhetoric was audible to all. Turned out his slogan was less #Ready4Rishi and more #F***TheDisadvantaged.
And it wasn’t only him. Throughout the week, he and his rival Liz Truss had been vying to demonstrate who could stick it hardest to the country’s worst-off. Sunak’s opening gambit was £10 fines for missing medical appointments: like benefits sanctions, but for those who are poorly as well as poor. They’d penalise the kind of people who struggle to turn up because they are on zero hours contracts or are overwhelmed by anxiety. The kind of people who, without support, might end up in next year’s drug and alcohol-related deaths statistics.
Truss proposed pay cuts for civil servants outside London - a sort of levelling down, if you will. She said the policy would bring in £8.8bn. Sure it would - straight from the pockets of public sector workers, including teachers and nurses, in less affluent areas, enriching the Treasury, but entrenching the north/south divide. Truss is one of those politicians who prefers "tax cuts" to "hand-outs"; or, to put it another way, hand-outs to the rich over hand-outs to the poor.
Both candidates are now so keen on the policy of offloading asylum seekers to Rwanda, they want to extend it. Indeed, the Tory leadership contest has triggered a veritable “arms race” of anti-immigration policies, while potential human rights abuses stack up like a Twelfth of July bonfire. Sunak backs housing Channel migrants in cruise ships and withholding aid from some of the world’s poorest countries if they refuse to take back failed asylum seekers. Truss has promised to expand the Border Force, and to rescue us from the clutches of the European Convention of Human Rights should that prove necessary.
The contenders have been competitively contemptuous about Scotland, too. Sunak pretended to be so ignorant of the country’s whereabouts he thought it included Darlington. Truss knows where it is, but has decided not to engage. Or at least to ignore its “attention-seeking” First Minister. This tactic won her great applause from the party faithful. A performative distaste for “whinging jocks” is a key part of many Conservative Party members’ identity.
This upping of the ante is what happens if your political future hangs on attracting the votes of a section of right-wingers: the rest of the country dissolves, and you play to your crowd. You court approval with populist policies. It doesn’t matter if - like the fines for missed appointments - your policies are unworkable. Or if - like the lower pay for out-of-London civil servants - they are quickly withdrawn. They are an expression of values; a fixing of society’s dividing lines. They tell us who matters, and who doesn’t. Whether or not they are enacted, damage is done: fear is whipped up, stigma spread, the striver versus skiver myth reinvigorated.
In any case, the line between rhetoric and reality is blurred. Whoever thought the Rwanda policy - a “dead cat” thrown on the table to distract from Partygate - would be taken this far? As for Sunak’s talk of “changing funding formulas” to boost the prosperous shires at the expense of more deprived areas, it’s already happening. Earlier this year, the Guardian revealed some of the wealthiest parts of England, including areas represented by government ministers, had been allocated 10 times more “levelling up” money per capita than the poorest.
The party's attack on the marginalised is well-established. When Truss says she wants to crack down on “those who try and disrupt our democratic process” it’s against the backdrop of the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, which has already done so. Why should we doubt her pledge of "sweeping reforms of trade union laws"? Chipping away at the right to strike is an effective way of ensuring the poor stay poor.
I haven’t been to Tunbridge Wells, but I recently spent time in pretty Home Counties towns which appear to have come through the last five years unscathed. Places where the roofs are thatched, the High Streets still look like High Streets and the prospect of a recession seems dim. As Sunak and Truss pander to the prejudices of those who live there, all the rest of us can do is to look on helplessly. Despite the promises of Brexit, control is precisely what the country’s struggling masses have lost: of the political process; of their lives; of their futures. They are no match for the prevailing economic forces. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister, they will be tossed about like plastic bags on the wind.
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