After an hour of Tories at War (Channel 4), I felt I had to get out into the fresh air and go for a walk. The foul language; the visceral hatred; the unbearable tensions; the violence being inflicted on ancient institutions and this poor old knackered country by the Tories, as if with chainsaws and zombie knives – it was like watching my first Saw movie.
They say sunshine is the best disinfectant, and outside in the bright autumnal afternoon I felt cleansed, and I put together some thoughts about why this superb fly-on-the-wall documentary works as well as it does.
For a start, the access secured by filmmaker Patrick Forbes was breathtaking, and the lack of restraint among the Tory parliamentarians quite stunning to behold. Discipline and morale has utterly collapsed. From January until a few weeks ago the penultimate dramas of Brexit are played out. For example, we witness the inside of a Eurosceptic European Research Group meeting, not so much foam flecked as more consumed by a sort of grim group paranoia, a body of men and women all determined to believe that “they” – ie their fellow Conservatives running the party and the country – are lying to them, conspiring against them, sneakily betraying Brexit. It was disturbing to watch, and very otherworldly.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the ERG, responding to yet another Commons calamity for Theresa May, mumbled something about “‘it’ doesn’t always mean what ‘it’ means”, like a pin-striped Bill Clinton talking about oral sex.
Almost all the filming took place indoors and the claustrophobia, literal and metaphorical, was overpowering. The incidental music – lots of Bizet – added a vibrantly satirical touch to the dismal proceedings. Everything is dark, in all senses.
Then there is the swearing. I’ve met a few politicians in my time and noted how they, like journalists, have an inventive capacity for fruity language. But there is something especially entertaining in watching, on camera, these usually tightly controlled, professionally spun, careful individuals just letting fly with the F-word. “Who the f*** do they think they are?” asks Alan Duncan MP of his opponents. Anna Soubry doesn’t wish to speak to her “f***ing chief whip”. My favourite was probably the moment when Nicholas Soames just declared “we are completely buggered”, his bulk subsiding on his desk like the fall of an empire. The rest of the rude words cannot be reprinted on a family website.
The insults were quite lively, too. Remember that these are, or were, people supposed to be in the same political movement. Anna Soubry, who really did seem to be losing it a bit, warned us Boris Johnson is “the great charlatan”, which is unarguable. Alan Duncan, the dapper Foreign Office minister once described as a “bonsai Michael Heseltine”, did a passable and contemptuous impression of Rees-Mogg’s plummy accent, and wrote off Priti Patel as “a complete and utter disgrace” and “the worst international development secretary we have ever had”.
Nicky Morgan even managed to self-parody herself when she abandoned all previous principles and positions, and chucked her lot in with Boris and no deal: “I am intensely pragmatic”. Yes, Nicky, that’s one way of describing monumental self-betrayal.
Andrew Bridgen, a Hobbit-like Eurosceptic who made his money out of potatoes, is apparently known to colleagues as “Spud-U-Hate”. He is perfectly open about plotting with Nigel Farage for some sort of electoral pact over drinks in some bar called Lou Lou’s. Just in case you were wondering where Britain’s economic future is being charted.
And on and on it goes, and will go. We see Farage, filmed many months ago, as he “privately” confides a prediction, one of the few accurate ones: “We are not leaving on 31 October... if Boris wins we ain’t leaving.” Farage was, in fact, by far the shrewdest operator we see in the whole sorry s**tshow: credit where it’s due.
Alan Duncan sums up the documentary, and the state of the Conservatives thus: “The sadness is you are mapping the day-to-day slow death of the most successful political party in democratic history.” Sad, yes, and horrific, but utterly, gut-wrenchingly compelling.