Jonathan Ashworth felt he could trust his Tory friend of over 15 years. So he was candid when asked about Labour’s chances in the election. Never a supporter of the leadership and one of those who expressed a lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, he was understandably critical. Little did he know that his ‘friend’ recorded him and sent the recording to the party central office. Nothing of what he said was surprising coming from a Corbyn opponent but still, coming just before an election, it was bound to hurt the party’s chances.
The old adage of ‘never trust a Tory’ has never been more true. The fact this news came on the same day as a study showing that 88% of Tory online ads are misleading or false is not a coincidence. Why was Ashworth so naive and allowed himself to be stabbed in the back so easily?
British politics has long relied on a set of conventions, gentleman’s agreements and unwritten rules that ensured certain boundaries were not crossed. They do still — more or less — apply to the Tories. When the government wishes to leak anonymously, journalists oblige and not reveal the ‘Downing Street source’ that originated the leak — following another convention. Ashworth must have felt that he, too, would be a protected source. However, it turned out that those conventions only apply to the so-called ‘mainstream’ and no longer hold if you are outside it. And so, a Tory was willing to break an unwritten rule.
In fact, Labour suffered thus ever since Corbyn became leader. They were treated with a sneering, patronising disregard and given a clear understanding that they were to be treated differently. It is the first time in my memory that an opposition has been treated in this way in Britan. This manifested itself in subtle ways — journalists camped outside Corbyn’s house, different amounts of scrutiny in interviews, a clear bias in the soundbites that made it from the interviews into the news bulletins and so on. The two videos of Johnson ‘edited by mistake’ for the news to make him look less unflattering were probably the clearest examples of the changing times.
The day before the Ashworth exposure, an even more egregious break of convention happened. A 4-year old boy was admitted to the A&E at Leeds, but a bed could not be found. Given a choice between chairs and floor, the little boy was put on some coats on the floor. The mother, understandably outraged, sent a photo to the Yorkshire post. This was picked up by the Mirror as a sign of the ‘NHS at breaking point’. The hospital investigated and issued a quick apology.
None of it would have really hit the headlines had Boris Johnson not totally failed to provide an adequate response to this in an interview. (If only he had looked at the picture, expressed empathy and horror and promised to fix it, this would have been the end of it.) Then, the fake news machine swung into action: a Facebook post (later disowned by the account owner, herself a Tory whose son is allegedly friends with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock) claimed the photo was ‘staged’. It was quickly picked up on by mainstream journalists and politicians on social media and made into a ‘Labour/Momentum plot’. Our media is not known for good practices, but this crossed a line even as far as they are concerned. So horrific a lie was this, that one would expect a full rebuttal to be headline news on the BBC: as far as I know, only Newsnight put one out. Millions of people could, potentially, still be convinced the whole thing was staged.
The problem with crossed lines is that once they are crossed, there is no going back. Once gentleman’s agreements, unwritten rules are broken, they are broken. Everyone else adjusts to ‘the new normal’. That little bit of trust is eroded.
Where this leads is clear. It leads to a world in which nothing is trusted, everything is questioned, hidden motives always suspected. Anyone (even your friend) is a potential traitor, anyone (even the mother of a sick 4-year old) a potential conspiracist. Meanwhile, the institutions a society relies on for judgement, for information, for guidance are accused of having agenda. Judges are enemies of the people, experts are biased, even clergymen are suspected. The Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev describes such a world — where trust into the minimal decency of human beings, into the basic professionalism of institutions, into the existence of some commonly accepted axioms and truths disappears, conspiracy theories march in and everything becomes technically possible. It is a scary existence, and one in which democracy — which relies on this trust — ceases to function.