The Uncuts: 2022 Political Awards (Part III)

Backbencher of the Year – Lee Anderson MP

Readers of the ConservativeHome website picked Lee Anderson, the Member of Parliament for Ashfield as their own backbencher of the year last week.

Rather than scour Hansard for the worthy contributions of countless Labour MPs, we thought it might be a good idea to second the motion and make Anderson our hero of the green benches too.

Hopefully it doesn’t need stating that our motivations are diametrically opposite.

Anderson personifies two hoary old truisms about the Conservatives.

First, JS Mill’s remark that it is the ‘stupid party.’

A rent-a-gob reactionary who presumably imagines himself as a man of the people, Anderson makes Peter Bone sound like Isiah Berlin.

He is also the corporeal representation of Theresa May’s line about the Tories being the ‘nasty party.’

Perhaps best-known for his advice that people on the breadline could make meals for 30 pence a day and that volunteers in food banks were merely ‘do gooders,’ Anderson has since branched out.

He recently upbraided nurses for their financial fecklessness (as he sees it) and made a boorish remark about how he would not follow Eddie Izzard into the toilets.

He is part of a long and ignoble tradition of ‘hang em’ and flog em’ Tory backbenchers, but his persona is based on a complete misconception of working-class voters.

They are not stupid.

They made what they thought was a rational choice in 2019. Like the other 60-odd Tory MPs in Red Wall seats in the North and Midlands, Anderson is the temporary beneficiary of Labour’s missteps with Corbyn and Brexit.

As the polling is now starting to show, these votes are borrowed, not paid for.

And no amount of stoking the culture war will disguise the cost-of-living crisis felt most keenly in working-class towns like the one he represents.

The next election will be won or lost on the economy, not trans rights and Anderson, like many of his colleagues, will pay the price for the government’s manifold failures in this regard.

Sensing the twilight of his brief parliamentary career, Anderson knows this, but he will not be able to help it.

He will continue to make a berk of himself and up the rhetorical ante as he does so. In fact, it feels like a safe bet to predict he will lose the Tory whip before the year is out.

Let’s see.

Pebble in the Shoe Award – Northern Ireland Protocol

Of all the grisly problems left behind in Rishi Sunak’s in-tray by his predecessors, the problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the political equivalent of Japanese knotweed – is proving stubbornly resilient to speedy remediation.

The post-Brexit proviso negotiated by Boris Johnson, effectively leaves Northern Ireland in the EU’s orbit as far as the importation of goods from Britain is concerned.

The land border across the island of Ireland – and the EU’s entirely logical concern about the risk of hooky British produce finding its way into the single market – poses Brexit’s most enduring dilemma.

It is the reason why the Democratic Unionists pulled out of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive last February, effectively mothballing the place. (Something of a regular occurrence – it’s not functioned for 40% of the time since the Good Friday Agreement).

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to pan out like this.

For Brexit-loving Unionists the prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, replete with watchtowers and razor-wire, was one that made them salivate.

They did not expect a Conservative government to lumber them with a different arrangement – a border in the Irish Sea – that means goods coming from Britain are currently stopped and checked at ports before onward progress.

They see their opposition to the protocol as an issue of principle. It undermines their place in the UK and subordinates their Britishness – usurping the very Act of Union, they insist. (A Supreme Court judgment in January is almost certain to say they are wrong).

Conceived in haste and in unpropitious circumstances, the protocol is another of Johnson’s unwanted progeny. Almost as soon as it was signed the backsliding began.

Chief Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost (who sounds like a sub-par Marvel villain), botched the original negotiations that brought it about and then guffed-up the subsequent talks where he tried to have it scrapped.

So detested was Frost in Brussels that, as his name suggests, the entire issue was plunged into the deep freeze.

The Europeans – who have been sweet reason throughout – hold all the aces and will mount retaliatory measures on British goods if the issue is not now settled to their satisfaction.

Crunch time beckons.

President Biden wants to come to Belfast in early April for the 25th anniversary celebrations for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that the Americans did so much to help bring about.

He’s made it clear to Sunak that he will only come if the devolved institutions are restored and functional. Earlier this month he announced former Congressman, Joe Kennedy, as his special envoy to Northern Ireland, to add a bit of pressure.

It’s now a prime ministerial virility test and Sunak, having inherited his cards from Truss and Boris, has few good options.

He is not going to get a deal that all unionists will accept – that much is abundantly clear – so he must split the difference and bring Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP on-side so the institutions can function, under Stormont’s consociationalist arrangements.

In the process, they will get it in the neck form the loyalists, who are muttering darkly and threatening to bring the curtain down on the Good Friday Agreement.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland thinks these are mostly gaseous effusions from young hoodlums, however the benighted history of Northern Ireland suggests caution is always a prudent response.

Sunak needs to get something from the EU that he can sell and then get Donaldson to own the compromise – and he needs it by the end of January.

Choreography is everything, but unionists, forever predicting a sell-out, are waiting to scream ‘betrayal!’ on cue.

Yet Sunak cannot afford to jerk the Americans about. Neither can he risk a trade war with the EU.

Donaldson will have to bear the pain and its likely he will be put in the Lords before the year is out as part of a package of sweeteners to rent the DUP’s loyalty. We’ve been here before.

Rishi Sunak, who, like most MPs, shows not the slightest interest in Northern Ireland, will not be the first British PM to curse the place and its unrivalled capacity to clog up the Downing Street in-tray.

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