The Tory leadership hopefuls hit the hustings willing to say any old nonsense that might go down well with members
Nice work if you can get it. Boris Johnson has just returned from holiday. Not that it would much matter if he had stayed in Slovenia. Because it’s not as if he’s doing much at home. Thank god we’re not in a cost of living crisis with fuel bills now set to top £4,200. Then we really might be up shit creek while the paddle watched Netflix.
Most prime ministers might have done things rather differently. Seen out their last few weeks in office at No 10 with dignity and go on vacation in September. To protect their legacy if nothing else. But the Convict sees things through the prism of his own narcissism. His legacy has always been about his own self-gratification. So he takes his pleasures where and when he feels like it. He wants it. He takes it. He won’t pay the price. That’s for Lords Brownlow and Bamford: bank-rollers in chief to Team Johnson.
TUSCANY — Spending the whole of August at the coast is practically an Italian birth-right.
But following the surprise collapse of Mario Draghi’s government in July, Italy is holding autumn elections for the first time in more than 100 years — leaving politicians with precious little time for sunbathing.
Instead, the Italian summer is being dominated by the intense heat of an election campaign, as politicians make frantic attempts to connect with voters who are either away at the beach, or wishing they were.
There’s a lot at stake for Italy, which is facing a precarious economic outlook amid market jitters over what sort of direction the country will take without the veteran former central banker Draghi in charge.
Alongside the pedalos and ping-pong, beachgoers on the Versilian Riviera in Tuscany last week were scanning newspapers for the latest twists in the political soap opera.
“I have the impression people are talking about politics this summer,” said Carlo Tatini, an estate agent and member of the Brothers of Italy party which is currently the most popular in opinion polls.
But election strategists face a delicate dilemma.
While they are desperate to land their messages and find swing voters wherever they are, not everyone will appreciate a candidate suddenly appearing to block their sun. Perhaps worse, TV footage of political leaders enjoying themselves on the beach could alienate those unfortunate voters who are still stuck in the sweltering city heat.
Down on the strand at Marina di Pietrasanta, a middle-class resort town, lifeguards were busily raking the sand between the 20 rows of sun loungers. Massimo Votta, a father of four who owns a construction business in Florence and a front-row view of the surf, said: “It’s harder for politicians to reach people when they are at [the] seaside. You have a different routine, you’re not watching the news. At home people have more time to watch TV.”
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy who is poised to become the country’s first female prime minister, can’t afford to make mistakes. That is partly why she decided to stay away from the sun loungers when she visited the coast on a campaign stop at Versilia last week. The Tuscan coast is best known as the home of footballers’ favorite resort, Forte dei Marmi.
Lap dogs and pearls
But Meloni, the opposition leader, steered clear of the beach, preferring to take part in a question and answer session on stage in the garden of a 19th century villa. She drew a crowd of around 700 people, including many well-to-do women, accessorized with Prada bags, pearls and the occasional lap dog.
While Tuscany has long been a stronghold of the left, there are signs that the right is gaining ground now. Right-wing parties took 40 percent in regional elections in 2020, versus 48 percent for parties on the left.
Many present seemed to be confirmed Meloni supporters. Patrizia, a housewife from Livorno in her 60s with a nut-brown tan, said Meloni had her vote: “I have always been a fan of hers, I have followed her progress since she was young. I share her views.”
Domenico Arruzzolo, a podcaster from Lucca, said he wanted to see her in action before giving her his vote. “She did well to stay out of Draghi’s government in opposition. I came here to see what she says and make my mind up,” he added.
In a torrid summer, heat reaching up to 40 degrees in recent weeks is not making the business of campaigning any more pleasant for voters or politicians. When Meloni’s slot started at 7 p.m., it was still 33 degrees. Dressed in beach-friendly white linen and Capri sandals, she still looked flustered, tugging at her clothes. In the crowd, hand-held fans were the must-have accessory.
But the heat did little to sap Meloni’s energy as she wheeled through some of her pet subjects, blasting globalization and what she sees as Italy’s overly deferential attitude to Europe. Her opponents on the left have “created a culture where if you think differently you are treated like a pariah,” she said.
“When they call us monsters, they are calling the 25 percent of Italians who support us monsters and that I won’t allow,” she declared, to loud cheers.
This time around the right-wing bloc appears better positioned than the left, thanks to a long-standing alliance. The center left is in disarray after a tie-up between the Democrats and a small centrist party, Azione, collapsed at the weekend, less than a week after it was formed.
Foreign governments and investors fear a far-right administration would undermine Italy’s international commitments, but for Meloni and her supporters such fears are “surreal.” She dismissed her critics warnings: “They say we will bring the 10 plagues of Egypt down on Italy, that Italy will fall into the void.”
Halfway through the event, a police officer providing security collapsed, apparently from the heat. On cue Meloni responded by leading a round of applause for the police.
The 45-year-old Meloni is now in pole position to head the next government. With 24 percent in the polls, a short campaign serves her well, minimizing the risk of mishaps. In an election campaign, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, especially on the beach.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party and an ally-cum-rival of Meloni’s, suffered a disastrous August beach-club tour in 2019. After weeks taking selfies, making cocktails and DJing on the sand as his polling numbers surged, he then blundered in his bid to force elections and ended up back in opposition, with the result that his beach-persona is still associated with a political flop.
But, perhaps anxious to make up lost ground, he appears more willing to brave the sand to take his message to the people again. Last weekend, Salvini posed in his trunks on a boat in Lampedusa after taking another tour of the area to highlight illegal migration, his political signature theme. Even this short boat trip left Salvini red-faced, though, after it emerged that the same vessel had been used by a previous owner to rescue migrants from the sea.
Summer of social networking
Lorenzo Pregliasco of polling agency You Trend said the campaign will by necessity focus online for the month of August, before an intense few weeks in the run up to the September 25 vote. “Parties will probably enhance their social media engagement because it’s difficult to hold in-person events and few people are watching TV,” he said. “Another consequence is that they will focus efforts on the final month, so the campaign will be very short and concentrated.”
Due to the cost-of-living crisis more voters, often pensioners and those on low income, can’t afford a holiday. Some of these are likely former 5Star supporters who might now be willing to vote for Brothers of Italy, or they might not vote at all.
The challenge for Meloni is to mobilize those voters on low incomes or pensions who are disaffected, and may well not be able to afford holidays, said Pregliasco. The Brothers of Italy struggled to win over enough of these voters at previous local elections but now appear to have a chance in the national poll.
On top of the heat and the holidays, many voters are weary of events on the national and global stage. “A lot of people are tired after two years of pandemic, tired of everything,” Alberto Pierotti, a retired air-force official who lives in the Versilia area, said. “In summer they have less desire to listen.”
For her part, Meloni seems up for the challenge. “Because I am a woman, of the right, I came to politics young and I’m short — my entire career I have been underestimated,” she told the crowd in the garden by the sea. “It’s an advantage.”
LONDON — With her famously wooden speaking style and a wardrobe inspired by Margaret Thatcher, Liz Truss looks an unlikely figure to lead a revolution.
But the red-hot favorite to be crowned Britain’s new prime minister next month plans to tear up years of Conservative orthodoxy with an immediate tax-cutting program which party traditionalists fear the debt-ridden U.K. — with its surging levels of inflation — can ill afford.
“My first priority is reducing taxes,” Truss insisted at a leadership hustings in the northern town of Darlington Tuesday night. “I think it’s important people keep more of their own money, and that we grow the economy.”
These, Truss insisted, are “Conservative principles.” But her tone is markedly different to the ‘sound money’ message with which former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and his chancellor, George Osborne, dominated British politics during the U.K.’s last major economic crisis and beyond. From the late 2000s they delivered a relentless message that higher borrowing was irresponsible, and that above all Britain must learn to “live within its means.”
Their philosophy was one of “sound money,” which Osborne declared the “oldest Conservative principle of all” in a seminal speech as shadow chancellor in 2007. He laid out several “sound money tests,” stressing that taxes should never be cut if to do so would put low interest risks and low inflation at risk.
Subsequent Tory chancellors have largely followed the same blueprint. While Rishi Sunak, who took the reins at the Treasury weeks before the COVID pandemic struck, did oversee a significant emergency intervention to save jobs and businesses, he always warned of tougher tax-and-spend decisions when the crisis had passed.
Now, as Truss’s leadership rival, he has stuck to that message, cautioning party members that tax cuts now would only fuel inflation and lead to higher interest rates further down the line.
“The British Conservative Party’s tradition is sound money and fiscal responsibility,” a senior ally told POLITICO. “Rishi Sunak is absolutely in that tradition.”
But it is Truss — with her strikingly different economic vision — whom polls suggest is now the overwhelming choice of Tory Party members to be their next leader. She has promised to immediately scrap Sunak’s planned rises in national insurance and corporation tax, while imposing a moratorium on green energy levies — collectively costing the U.K. Treasury £48.2 billion.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, said tax cuts have formed the main dividing line between the two candidates thus far.
“In terms of their rhetoric at least, Rishi Sunak is right to focus on inflation as the big issue. It’s kind of surprising that that’s something that Liz Truss hasn’t talked about so much,” he said.
Yet Johnson stressed that neither candidate has confronted the fact that spiraling inflation means the next prime minister will face difficult choices on public spending.
“Neither of them are telling us how they’re going to respond to the higher inflation public services are facing,” he said. “There are big challenges there, because the spending review a year ago was assuming inflation would be 3 per cent and it’s turning out to be 13 per cent. They’ve got a lot less money than they expected.”
Indeed, there’s something surreal in the way Truss and Sunak have been arguing over tax cuts as the British economy teeters on the brink of an enormous crisis. Energy bills are projected to soar in October and again in January 2023, while the Bank of England has predicted a recession lasting as long as the 2008 banking crisis. An internal document leaked to Bloomberg on Tuesday suggested ‘worst-case scenario’ plans are being made for energy black-outs this winter.
But if it sometimes seems like the economic debate is taking place on a different planet, it’s because the voters whom Sunak and Truss are currently trying to win over are not the British public as a whole — but the 180,000 grassroots members of the Conservative Party who will choose the next leader via a postal ballot.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, has studied the composition of this all-important group who will anoint the next U.K. prime minister. “By our reckoning the average member is in their late fifties, and around four in ten are either receiving or getting close to receiving their pension,” he said. “They’re also disproportionately likely to live in the [typically wealthier] south of England, rather than in the North or the Midlands — the Blue rather than the Red Wall, if you like.”
Tory members are disproportionately likely to be older, well-off, white and male. They tend to own their own homes, often outright, and many have either reached or are approaching retirement. As a result their priorities aren’t wholly aligned with young professionals and other working-age voters who have mortgages — and for whom inflation is a major problem.
Giles Wilkes, a partner at Flint Global and former No.10 adviser on economic issues, said that Truss’s policy platform was partly informed by the profile of this Tory selectorate. “They’re secure, they’re well off, so they’re the sort of people who could pooh-pooh the risks of Brexit and some of the risks going on right now. If people are warning you about inflation, if you’ve already got a house you think well, I’m mostly protected — I’ve got the thing I really need.”
Patrick English, associate director of political and social research at YouGov, which has polled party members, said there was “certainly a sense of a priority shift — they do still care about the deficit and running a good balanced economy, but that’s down the priority list right now.”
“They’re willing to buy into this idea that you know, we don’t have to get rid of it [the deficit] right now,” English said. “We know that Conservative Party members love cutting taxes, and we know that the tax rises that were done under the Johnson administration were deeply unpopular across the Conservative Party.”
Fighting it out
Because of the demographics of the Tory membership, neither candidate has made it their priority to set out a plan to alleviate the cost of living crisis, which will affect those on low and middle incomes the most.
But both Truss and Sunak have come under fire for failing to detail what they will do to tackle what will undoubtedly be the government’s biggest challenge come the autumn.
On Tuesday, Sunak tried to get on the front foot by pledging to introduce a new package of support for families struggling with energy bills — though he declined to state how much more he would spend. Speaking to ITV, he said it was “hard to be precise” but agreed that hundreds more pounds per household could be needed.
Questioned by broadcasters on Tuesday, Truss declined repeatedly to commit to more support on energy bills and said: “What I’m talking about is enabling people to keep more money in their own pockets.” In an interview with the Financial Times last weekend she insisted that “the way I would do things is in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts,” a remark seized on by the Sunak campaign.
Wilkes said Truss’s plan may not survive a collision with reality. “I think she will almost certainly have to reverse course on so-called handouts because it’s very hard to get your head round how bad it’s going to be.”
Ed Shackle, a policy manager at the consultancy Public First which has conducted focus groups in so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas claimed by the Tories from Labour in 2019, said Truss’s promises of tax cuts do have some appeal to working class voters in the wider electorate, with more middle class voters leaning towards Sunak’s “steady hand on the tiller” pitch.
“They’re broadly quite aware of the candidates’ positions,” he said. “Especially in the more recent focus groups we’ve been doing, they’re largely aware that Truss stands for cutting taxes, and they’re largely aware that Rishi doesn’t immediately want to and is for balancing the books. But what doesn’t follow is how that massively impacts this winter.”
Enthusiasm for either candidates’ economic proposals is in short supply, Shackle said. “There was no sense of hope. There was no sense of excitement about the race. Even people who wanted certain candidates to win weren’t excited by the candidate.”
There is no intellectually honest way that these two stances can be reconciled.
The only explanation for the two stances is hyper-partisanship.
And like many hyper-partisans, he has invoked constitutional arguments of first principle when it suits his cause, but does not apply them the same way against his cause.
It is this hyper-partisanship which is worrying.
Either the FBI should be free to look at Clinton’s emails or Trump’s boxes or they should not.
But to say one is good and the other bad signifies a partisanship that picks and chooses which basic principles should be complied with.
And as this blog has said before, constitutionalism is the notion that there are certain fundamental rules and principles that should govern political behaviour regardless of personal or partisan advantage.
The FBI should be left to get on with their investigation and to follow where the evidence takes them, without fear or favour.
McCarthy is right that there is an intolerable state of weaponised politicisation.
But it is coming from Trump supporters, and it does not bode well.
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