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The centre cannot hold

16 Jun 2024 4 minute read
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage (left) and leader of Plaid Cymru Rhun ap Iorwerth take part in the BBC Election Debate Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Ben Wildsmith

How long to go, another two weeks? We’re into the uphill portion of the election now.

Anything remotely interesting that the parties might have had to reveal has been said so all that’s left is for politicians to run around the country bellowing slogans in the hope that the UK’s densest citizens wake up to their appeal.

‘Keir, we need you in Cwmcarn, there’s a man here who says he doesn’t know your dad was a toolmaker, we’re sending the chopper.’

Now that the fickle masses have cottoned on that it’s socially acceptable to bully Rishi Sunak, he’ll face a lifetime’s hardship quota in 18 days, likely emerging with the embittered worldview and ciggy habit of late-period Bet Lynch in Coronation Street.

‘I’ll tell ya, kid, you can’t trust them. My trouble was I loved too much…’


This election has a dreamlike quality to it. The substantive outcome is guaranteed, so our attention is captured by anything that might provide a more nuanced insight into the ‘Tories bad, Labour good’ fanfare of the result.

In our peripheral vision, strange apparitions vie for attention. David Cameron is everywhere, pronouncing in that reassuring, polished voice he has as if the last nine years didn’t happen at all.

2015 has entered the chat…

Ed Miliband, another tonal reminder of life before the flood, adds his jolly, self-deprecating input, as if his electoral failure didn’t usher in a catastrophe of governance that is etched on the graves of Covid victims and austerity martyrs who will never speak again.

It is comforting, I suppose, to hear the voices of politicians who are associated with simpler times. Democracy was a lot more navigable before we were all forced to get our heads around WTO rules, spike proteins, and Lee Anderson.

The electorate is coming down from a particularly heavy trip and it craves familiarity.

We’re not going to get it, though.


Watching the 7-way debate on telly the other evening, I was struck by how strangely unbalanced it was.

The ruling party was represented by Penny Mordaunt, an ersatz Boudica who, I am willing to risk a libel action, withdrew from the Tory leadership contest in return for carrying a sword at the Coronation.

If the Conservatives were to win this election, it would inconvenience her plans for the future.

Ranged against her, Angela Rayner looked like Kurt Cobain on a record company-mandated appearance on The Muppet Show.

You could imagine the chuckling at Labour HQ as Rayner squirmed while selling the most watered-down Labour offering in history.

Boasting an origin story that is everything Keir Starmer pretends to be, Rayner didn’t join Labour for this. You could see it in her eyes. After the election, she’ll be a problem.


So, the main event was contested by actors who didn’t believe in their roles.

The central space where the UK’s issues are traditionally decided has become one of those rip-off Winter Wonderlands that are a mainstay of Christmas headlines.

‘I took my child to his first election and all he saw was Wes Streeting in an elf costume. Michael Gove didn’t even turn up.’

Around them, however, an actual debate was happening. Nigel Farage’s position is far more bracing than expected. Whilst everyone who has followed his career knows that he is all about the money, he seems emboldened to say the quiet bits out loud now.

With toxic rhetoric on immigration now an established feature of UK politics, Farage has pushed the envelope to overtly support the dismantling of the NHS.

In the red corner, Rhun ap Iorweth of Plaid Cymru and Stephen Flynn of the SNP mounted explicit defences of immigration and investment in public services.


There, between Farage and the progressive edge of Wales and Scotland, exists the real, meaningful battle for the UK’s future.

Labour’s line that investment can happen without extra taxation is dependent on economic growth that is not predicted for the UK economy. For all the performative caution of their presentation, the Labour offering is pure Mr. Micawber: ‘Something will turn up.’

If something doesn’t turn up, then the election after this will see Labour where the Conservatives are now.

This is the Last Chance Saloon for a traditional party to deliver for the traumatised people of the UK.

If Labour fails to effect meaningful change, its victory will be Pyrrhic.

Flags & Bones by Ben Wildsmith is available from Cambria Books

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28 days ago

Penny Mordaunt got the swordbearer gig at the coronation in return for pulling out of the leadership contest? But the Queen was still living then. Are you saying Liz Truss killed her off as part of the deal?

Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
28 days ago
Reply to  Mawkernewek

She agreed not to run against Sunak post-Truss.

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
28 days ago

As the article suggests it’ll be the next election that’ll probably be the more interesting as we’d have had five years of a Labour government. That five years, in reality, isn’t going to be enough time to repair fourteen years of Tory mess but that won’t stop mainly conservative England turning to the right again, especially with Starmer not having the charisma of Blair.

Matt Evans
Matt Evans
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

100 years of Labour wouldn’t fix this mess because, even though it’s been erased from our collective memories, this mess started with them. A push for growth and deregulation of the financial sector caused the catastrophic collapse of the banking sector, and us, the victims of corporate greed, had to pay the price for bailing them out. Kier Starmer’s Labour made it a point of stating they would remove the barriers on banker’s bonuses, a barrier put in place to prevent it from happening again, but he can’t find the money to remove the 2nd child cap and bring children… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

I doubt that Labour under Starmer will have six months as the weight of expectation is just too much and Starmer thinks he can fob the electorate off with regurgitated neoliberal rubbish. As for the incoming government lasting five years without any meaningful change, only time will tell, but I have my doubts.

I already don’t like the complexion of the ruling party after next.

28 days ago

Could we be following France? A socialist government with Hollande in power after defeating the left wing of the party. The party is unable to deliver on the bread and butter issues and suffers a humiliating defeat. The French equivalent of the Conservatives are marginalised which leaves the country with a desperate election and a real risk of the renamed National Front in with a chance of forming a government.

Her Ring Tone
Her Ring Tone
26 days ago

You slid quickly past the Labour losses of 2017 and 2019, Ben. Why was that?

Last edited 26 days ago by Her Ring Tone
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
26 days ago

Poor old Rhun here next to the Gob and tonight between Philp and Tice…

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