George Glover muses on bad jokes and political intrigue.
Amongst many policies announced in last week’s budget speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond pledged to provide new tax exemptions for businesses that have public toilets. With a wry smile, Hammond argued that local authorities can now ‘relieve themselves’ but right now, he didn’t want to get ‘bogged down’ on the subject. As the House of Commons groaned, Hammond provided a rationale for his dreadful punning: ‘at least I’m demonstrating that we are all British’.
Hammond’s toilet puns are the latest in a series of recent examples of senior Conservative figures trying to liven up their politics with humour. In the past month, Sajid Javid has joked that the political thriller TV series Bodyguard had given him “a newfound fear of briefcases”, while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has used his Twitter feed to compare the UK’s exit from the EU to a group of ministers trying to escape a maze. But perhaps the best example of Tories trying to be funny can be seen in Theresa May’s speech at the party conference last month. In what aides subsequently insisted was a spontaneous move, May appeared on stage dancing to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ in an effort to spin her way out of the mockery and memes generated by her robotic attempts to dance at a South African secondary school. Furthermore, in her speech May plainly mentioned two of the foibles from her 2017 conference speech: her repeated coughing and the collapse of a party slogan on the wall behind her.
At the root of May’s attempts at stand-up comedy are Hammond’s musings on Britishness: the idea that people on this island are united by a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humour. Knowing self-deprecation has been a hallmark of British comedy, featured in stand-up routines across the land and sitcoms as diverse as Dad’s Army and Peep Show. At a turbulent time when political parties are keen to show their national pride, May’s jokes are part of a public relations rebrand attempting to cast the Conservatives as standing for true British values.
However, there is a second reason for the Conservatives’ attempts at humour – a desire for greater engagement with young people. A particularly interesting case study of attempts to broaden the party’s support is the downfall of independent youth group Activate. Activate styled themselves as a ‘Tory Momentum’, aiming to replicate the grassroots Labour group’s appeal to young people, but suffered from a series of faux-pas. Most attempts at humour from the Activate Twitter page failed to engage a broader audience, focussing on far-right topics and centring on content seemingly created by people much older than the movement’s target demographic. For example, every post featured an archaic hashtag of #meme and the site viewed Jacob Rees-Mogg as a Tory outsider with Corbyn-like potential to unite young conservatives. In April 2018, Vice attended Activate’s official launched party and reported that only 28 people turned up to a room booked for 150.
Perhaps more worryingly, a leaked conversation in August 2017 from the Activate WhatsApp group featured jokes about “gassing chavs” and a genuine contemplation that “seriously, chavs are an actual problem”. Activate’s spokesperson promised to punish those in question and two members of the national committee announced their resignations the day of the leak. The group would never recover from the publicity stink this caused and formally announced their closure in May 2018.
Still, right-wing meme pages do continue to grow more popular; for example, the Facebook page Middle Class Memes for Rees-Moggian Teens, targeted at a broader group than the far-right focus of Activate, has over 60,000 followers. An admin for the page told me that his page’s appeal is rooted in the ability to be “edgy enough to be humorous, but not so much that we’d alienate a potential audience”. Following this mission statement will be key if the Conservatives are to improve on the 2017 election result, where only 19% of first-time voters opted for the party, compared to 66% for Labour.
A twin goal of representing British values and increasing youth support has driven Conservatives’ attempts to be funny over the past year; the Tory party seems determined to have a sense of humour; whether these jokes register will be reflected in whether Tory votes do the same.