Question Time Tears And the Frailty of Tory Rule

When people tune in to Question Time, they can usually expect a few things. Politicians sniping at each other. Columnists watching bemused from the sidelines. David Dimbleby searching for the most politically correct way of singling out audience members (‘The man in the blue shirt…no, the slightly more tanned gentleman in a blue shirt…’) Last week, though, viewers were presented with something less expected. It was a stark image of human suffering, enough to make the panel’s Conservative delegate squirm in her seat.

As audience members were scouted for comments, working mother Michelle Dorrell confronted Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, saying: ‘I voted Conservative ’cos I thought you were going to be the better chance for me and my children. You’re about to cut tax credits after promising you wouldn’t’.  

She went on: ‘I work bloody hard for my money to provide for my children and you’re gonna take it away from me and them. I can hardly afford the rent I’ve gotta pay, I can hardly afford the bills and you’re gonna take more from me’. She finished with an impassioned ‘Shame on you’.

This wasn’t an irritated gripe, or Westminster-esque point scoring. This was a grown woman being reduced to tears for fear of what the government she elected will inflict upon her family. All in the same week that Tory MPs sat laughing during a Commons debate on poverty.

Not everybody felt so sympathetic towards Dorrell. Much of the Twitter commentariat expressed a ‘you made your bed, now lie in it’ attitude. And after jumping into bed with the Tories, is she really surprised that she’s now been stung?

The Tories are a party that few go to with anything resembling enthusiasmIn many ways, though, she represents much of the Conservative party’s voting base. They find themselves in a curious position at present. Yes, they have power, but they lack the love and admiration commanded by the likes of ’08 Obama, ’97 Blair or even ’15 Trump. They’re a party that few go to with anything resembling enthusiasm; more often it’s with a sense of glum acceptance, or of hedging their bets.

If I was a pundit I might refer to Michelle Dorrell as a floating voter – someone who isn’t bound by an unerring loyalty or aversion to any particular party, who thinks less about left vs. right and more about what will have the best impact upon her day-to-day life. This isn’t fickle or selfish. It simply reflects the fact that, for most people, paying the bills and getting food on the table has to come before grand questions of ideology.

This goes some way towards explaining the often mystifying success of the Conservatives. More than any other party, they have learnt to capitalise upon keeping voters in a ‘hunker down and look after number one’ mentality. Much as they’d hate to be stuck in a lift with Cameron and co, voters have been persuaded that, in tough times, these are the people who’ll wreak the least havoc. It’s little wonder that the Conservatives seized upon the financial crisis, exaggerating and distorting facts to the point of telling out-and-out lies (George Osborne’s ludicrous assertion that the UK was on the verge of bankruptcy, to give but one example). Seven years later, they still take every opportunity to remind us that we’re ‘not out of the woods’, that ‘the job isn’t finished yet’. As long as voters are kept on just the right side of uncomfortable, they’re less likely to take a punt on the opposition. Extreme austerity can continue to masquerade as common-sense necessity, while things like social mobility and a caring welfare state become unaffordable luxuries.

This might also explain the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’ – the voter who is reluctant to be seen flying a flag for the ‘Nasty Party’, who knows that Conservative rule hardly spells good times ahead for the poor and vulnerable, but who hopes that their own family will at least get by. In my working class community I’ve even seen some wear their Conservative vote as a badge of pride, a way of setting themselves apart from the Great Unwashed and proving that they can afford a party which was never designed with the poor and vulnerable in mind.

Few can truly claim to be safe under Tory rule

As Michelle Dorrell has discovered the hard way, though, Conservative ideologies aren’t just affecting the poor and vulnerable anymore. Few can truly claim to be safe under Tory rule, and many who glided through the coalition years are now feeling the second term pinch. The pitiful ‘Living Wage’ won’t disguise a fall in net income for thousands of middle income families, for instance, while the vast majority unable to afford private healthcare are now reliant upon a strained, under-resourced NHS.

In a sense, the Tories are right when they say their job isn’t done yet. There’s still a long way to go before we reach the neoliberal heaven dreamt of by Margaret Thatcher, resplendent with privatisation, laissez-faire economics and a state that’s shrunk to the point of irrelevance. The past five years of austerity were just a taster. If you’ve ever worried about the next mortgage payment, your children’s job prospects, or how you might get by if you became disabled, then the Tories ‘job’ is one that, sooner or later on its road to completion, will cause you harm. Unless you’re a member of that fabled 1%, it’s a job you should be wary of helping them to complete.

A savvy Labour will avoid criticising those that voted Conservative in May, and instead offer an olive branch to the growing number now feeling victimised and betrayed. After all, the Tories have a history of earning support for a limited time before losing it to Poll Tax excess. Tax credit cuts are already driving Michelle Dorrell away from Cameron and towards Corbyn. That could be an omen of things to come. The Conservatives might have kept enough people on side after five years of power, but they shouldn’t be so certain of doing the same after ten.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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