The Tories Are Fast-Tracking Misery While They Still Can

Salting the earth is the order of the day.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

3 May 2024

Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference at Downing Street in London, April 2024. Toby Melville/Reuters

According to all polls, the Conservatives are facing electoral armageddon in the next general election. In this week’s locals, the picture isn’t much rosier, with initial results indicating the Tories are haemorrhaging seats (although some key mayoral contests, yet to be announced, could help save a modicum of face). 

It is difficult to divorce these predicted wipeouts – of such scale that even the more pragmatic of analysts are posing existential questions about the party’s future in its current iteration – from the flurry of hardline policy that kicked off this week, as if we were being treated to a particularly poisonous political advent calendar. 

On Monday, the government launched a major immigration operation in aid of shipping people off to Rwanda. Asylum seekers attending routine meetings would be subject to surprise detention, while immigration officials would be rounding up people nationwide in the hope of bundling them onto the first flights to Kigali, set to leave in 10-12 weeks. 

This plan to permanently deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was deemed unlawful by the UK supreme court last year, with judges finding that refugees sent there were at risk of human rights violations. Nothing has materially changed since then, except the passing of the Safety of Rwanda Bill – a new piece of legislation that essentially declares that Rwanda IS a safe country, because we say so, while partially “switch[ing] off the Human Rights Act”

At the same time, work and pensions minister Mel Stride was announcing an overhaul of disability benefits that threatens to strip away regular financial support from those with conditions like depression and anxiety, instead offering them vouchers for therapy and social care support. Quite how slashing people’s incomes and putting them on NHS waiting lists with 12 week backlogs will improve their capability for work isn’t yet clear.  

These proposals came hot on the heels of a damning report from the United Nations that found the UK state is systemically failing to address human rights violations experienced by people with disabilities. Among its observations, it highlighted how government welfare policy has directly led to an increase of hate speech and hostility towards disabled people by premising benefits on a “notion that disabled people are undeserving and wilfully avoiding employment (‘skiving off’) and defrauding the system”. A week later, an undeterred Stride was out and about, defiantly doubling down on the Tory crusade against “sick-note culture”. 

Not to be outdone, on Tuesday health secretary Victoria Atkins revealed planned changes to the NHS constitution that included an onus on biological sex in relation to single-sex wards. If the constitution is amended as proposed, it could see some transgender patients treated in separate rooms if patients request their removal from single-sex spaces – news which is sure to further exacerbate already high rates of healthcare avoidance among trans demographics.

This is a key point. All these punitive, miserable policies are the death rattle of a government facing a crushing defeat.

Many of these proposals may not become reality, or only be so for a short period. Disability reforms are likely to be stalled by judicial challenges, and NHS constitutional changes are subject to the results of an eight-week public consultation. These consultations can, and do, make a difference – last year, a Conservative plan to close almost all of England’s train ticket offices was scrapped after three quarters of a million people responded, objecting to the idea. 

While the Rwanda bill does increase the likelihood of planes taking off (although campaigns to prevent deportations have swung into action), Keir Starmer has said his government will ultimately abolish the policy. And while there is little evidence that Labour is going to make people’s material conditions much better (given its reluctance to spend any money), it’s difficult to imagine it will be quite as dedicated as the Conservative party to immiserating the population in its charge. 

Indeed, it’s hard to see the purpose of policies such as the Rwanda bill beyond trying to appeal to the rabid national conservative wing of the party. Immigration may be high on the list of public concerns, but the Rwanda plan is manifestly unpopular because it is an illegal, expensive mess. The mythical figure of the benefit scrounger will always occupy a nasty little corner of public imagination, but slashing the welfare payments of the disabled is not a vote winner when people are primarily worrying about housing, health and money. Nor is menacing a community that makes up less than 1% of the UK population

Instead, these policies look like a salting-of-the-earth. Over the course of their 14 years in power, the Tories have swung sharply to the right and abandoned any pretence of seeking to make Britain a better place for anyone but those already at the top of the economic tree. This outgoing generation of top Conservative parliamentarians are some of the most nakedly unpleasant and untalented politicians the UK has ever seen. They are reactive, vindictive and incoherent, undue the respect of trying to attach even warped reason and rationality to their choices. The actions of Rishi Sunak and co seems little more than this: an attempt to fast track political vendettas while they still wield the power to do so. If the Tories are going down, they’re going to make damn sure their chosen targets are coming with them. 

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.


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