Jul 22 • 1HR 26M

Fraser Nelson On The PM Race And Tory Diversity

A one-stop shop for understanding contemporary British politics.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Fraser is a Scottish Catholic highlander who now edits (brilliantly) the Spectator in London. Deeply versed in Tory politics, and sympathetic to Boris, he seemed the ideal person to ask to explain what’s been going on in Westminster, what went so wrong under PM Johnson, and who is likely to replace him. It’s a one-stop guide to contemporary British politics in a mild Scottish accent.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on how Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss compare to one another, and what Fraser calls the “absolutely electrifying” effect of Kemi Badenoch — pop over to our YouTube page.

A good complement to this episode is the one I had last year with Dominic Cummings, the brilliant strategist behind Brexit and the rise of Boris. Here’s the transcript. Here’s a clip about Dominic’s break from Boris:

To continue the debate over my recent column on Trump and Boris, a reader writes:

Here’s a dissent: You are right about Trump. You are wrong about Johnson.

Lying comes naturally to Johnson. It’s not just to get out of trouble. He lies about everything. Max Hastings knew this and presciently forecast it would all blow up.  It has.

Let’s turn to Brexit. First take the term “elites.” This glib, trash term is overused, over-hackneyed and should have no place in your lexicon. Unless very carefully defined, it is completely meaningless. I know as many lawyers and city types who voted for Brexit as did Remain, and likewise for gardeners, carpenters, plumbers etc. The British public was conned, lied to and persuaded there was a problem of the EU’s doing.

To be fair, there were problems, some of which can be laid at the EU’s door, but for too many years, blame deflection was the name of the game. Most of the problems the country faced were homegrown. Now look at what has happened: we have a stuttering economy, low growth and haven’t yet introduced the checks at our borders we are supposed to, as it will cause even more chaos — Jacob Rees-Mogg has admitted as much. That’s what happens when you erect major trade barriers with your neighbours and largest market. We can debate immigration as much as you like, but the problem has got worse, and as you correctly pointed out, the numbers have increased.

Now let’s look at the so-called Conservative Party. Under Johnson, one-nation conservatism died. He killed it. It was replaced, deliberately, by a populist, divisive style of rule, not dissimilar to Trump’s, quite happy to bend or break laws and conventions in order to further its agenda. Its leading persona was Boris Johnson, and to the eternal shame of the Conservative Party, precious few demurred.

The problems the country now face stem directly from Brexit: a plethora of unfulfillable promises built on lies. There are still many who think Brexit was a good thing, but there is a growing and significant majority that now recognises it isn’t working and was a mistake. It’s happened, and Keir Starmer is right to say that the next step should be to improve relations with the EU and to see what can be made to work, starting with the Northern Ireland Protocol (putting a border down the Irish Sea was, you’ll remember, a promise Johnson swore he would never do.  And then promptly did “to get Brexit done”). All the deceit involved drives me mad, but the Labour Party, by electing a no-hoper and no-brainer in Jeremy Corbyn, made winning a majority inevitable (and remember FPTP didn’t require a significantly higher number of votes to achieve this).

It might be too early to write off the Conservative Party, much as I would like to, despite having voted for them most of my adult life. But they are tainted, out of ideas, and despite the diversity you applaud, not impressive. I fear the next few months may prove as entertaining as the last few years.

One aspect that you haven’t touched on is the role of the media. It is staggering to see the degree of partisanship on display. The Telegraph, Mail and Express appear to be living in an alternative universe where truth and fantasy commingle without differentiation. And why did the Times, which I read along with the Guardian, pull the blow-job report? This, along with the Londongrad money saga, is for another day.  

By the way, I am pleased you quoted Marina Hyde. Her sassiness, razor-sharp intellect and acerbic wit are spot-on.

We will have her on the Dishcast soon enough. Here’s a reader in London:

Sure, there was mounting frustration about Boris Johnson’s lying — not just the lying, but the fact that he invariably had to follow with “oh yes, come to think of it …” But voters, as opposed to MPs, think politicians lie all the time anyway, so I don’t think the cut-through is as great as might be supposed. 

I think the great point lost in all this is that Boris got his landslide because of Brexit and the increasing frustration with his inability to grasp the potential benefits became a hugely increasing sore, exacerbated by the daily shots of illegal immigrants turning up on our shores in rubber dinghies, often helped by the lifeboat service. This and his inability to grasp until too late how badly the economy was going to hit Mr & Mrs Average was what cost him public support as much as, if not more so, than his economy of truth. 

Another point not made enough is that Boris seemed to be a prisoner of focus groups and vocal groups of MPs, which meant he was constantly veering from one view to another. He made a string of supposedly exciting announcements that remained just that, never getting anywhere. You can only do that for so long before the public wises up.

Yes, it was the MPs who knifed him, but these were MPs getting it in the neck from their constituents for what was (or more often was not) going on. My neighbour tore up his Tory membership card in sheer frustration and told our MP about it. 

Boris could offer no clear guiding principles we could cling to that would help us bat aside the machinations of Cummings, the BBC et al, who were manifestly on a mission to defenestrate him. In the end, even those who fear for Brexit in the wake of his departure could see there was no other course.

Looking back to last week’s episode with Peter Staley, here’s a key moment where he calls the federal incompetence over monkeypox “Covid 2.0”:

The whole 20-minute segment on monkeypox is here. Another listener “enjoyed the episode”:

I share Mr. Staley’s concerns about the government’s handling of the monkeypox outbreak. I agree with him that the US did a disturbingly poor job of handling the Covid pandemic at the start. However, I have two important qualifiers:

  1. The US was hardly the primary “bad actor” in Covid; stupidity and misconduct in other countries was more flagrant and more consequential.

  2. I don’t know the details of the bureaucratic mangling of the monkeypox vaccine, but everything Staley reports sounds sadly accurate. However, it seems to me that the core problem early in the AIDS pandemic, and in the past two months with monkeypox, was the unwillingness of many in the gay community to modify their behavior consistent with obvious public health concerns. I was struck that neither you nor Staley mention this, beyond your effort to provide some rational current health advice, which is however strongly tilted toward vaccination over behavior modification.

We did urge gay men to “cool it” for a while. Maybe we should have been more adamant. It’s also becoming clearer how this version of monkeypox is spread: primarily through sexual contact. If mere skin-touching were spreading it, then it seems to me the epidemic would be much, much larger, given the crowds during Pride. That means, of course, that we have the ability to help stop it, by not having sex until vaccinated. That’s not sex-phobic or homophobic. It’s just sensible health advice.

Another dissenter expands on the reader’s second point:

Your discussion of monkeypox really bugged me, for a reason I hope you take to heart. The vast majority of it was focused on the failures of the FDA and CDC, which I don’t take issue with. But the assumptions of the world you live in, particularly when in Provincetown, were alarmingly similar to the assumptions you make (rightfully) about the progressive left — that it takes for granted people not having agency in their own lives.

The US government has (probably) failed with monkeypox, as it has with other diseases. Given that, what should people do? You and Staley both took it for granted that you seemed to have a right — almost an obligation — to party hard in P-Town, which the government’s failure was interfering with. It wasn’t until more than halfway through this part of the conversation that Staley and then you mentioned offhand that “some” people were suggesting people “cool it” for a month or so.

But listen again to the rest of your conversation about monkeypox. Time and again, you blamed the government for its failures and never said anything about maybe the party boys could do something besides bemoan the inability to get vaccinated — maybe party less or (trigger warning) not go to Provincetown one summer. Self-restraint in the face of a still small but looming epidemic was only on the margins of your assumptions.

At this early stage, restraint now among the mostly gay-male monkeypox spreaders would have exponential benefits going forward. Isn’t that a message about social good that is worth the telling?

I’m older and was never much of a partier, so I guess it’s easier for me to say this. But the pretty confined groups of A-Gays ought to take some agency in their own lives at this critical time, and maybe give something up temporarily for the benefit of both themselves and a very real group of future A-Gays and B-Gays and whatever letter the rest of us get. Not to mention heterosexuals.

As you can see, I take your point. Another listener moves to a different part of the discussion:

Your interview with Peter Staley was fairly interesting regarding his participation during the critical years of AIDS. But the conversation became electric when the subject turned to critical queer theory, the indoctrination of children, and the discussion of sex identity in preschool. You kept asking Staley if he thought it was ok to teach children this curriculum and he kept nervously laughing and avoiding to answer and said that you’re confused and banging your little drum.

I agree with you: critical theory has hijacked the gay community, gay rights, etc. and there very well could be an anti-gay backlash. Please continue to voice your side and fight for common sense. Your observations of critical theory’s dangerous impact are not anecdotal — they’re unfortunately everywhere.

To decide for yourself, here’s a clip of that heated exchange:

From a listener in San Francisco:

I had never heard of Peter Staley before (I’m a 49-year-old gay man in SF). ACT-UP and Queer Nation had already fallen apart when I landed there in 1993 as a young punk rock guy. So I was interested in hearing his retelling of that period in the late ‘80s. But then the convo moved to gay activism today — and wow. I thought, “Well this is it. This is the denial that so many gay men have about the gender ideology cult.” They are fucking terrified of speaking out against this. And of course it’s because they know it would mean expulsion from polite Democrat society.

I was recently discussing the mass delusion period we’re living through around Gender ID extremism. Someone said we should get ready for a massive gaslighting from people who will tell us that they never believed in this cult.

For what it’s worth, I keep hearing from gay men in Provincetown how alienated they are from this ideology, but also how scared they are to voice their concerns — especially about what this indoctrination is doing to gay children. Peter is emblematic of the majority, however, who prefer dismissing these concerns as overblown, and sticking to their own political tribe, which they have now internalized as “LGBTQIA+”. It’s maddening, but a function of real homophobes latching onto the “groomer” discourse, and tribal gays closing ranks in opposition.

The real trouble is that the non-profit institutions allegedly representing us are packed with critical theory zealots who experience no pushback, and if they do, purge the dissenters. My view is that gay men should stop funding groups that are dedicated to the abolition of homosexuality.

From a parent:

It was so hard for me to listen to Peter Staley downplay the gender stuff for kids. My five-year-old stayed up an hour past her bedtime last night because she was worried she could suddenly become male, or that my breasts might disappear. She is extremely confused. At a time in her life when she is only beginning to understand what it will mean for her to grow up and become a physical woman, she thinks her “pronouns” might suddenly change and she might become genderless. Teenaged camp counselors with clear and obvious feminine features are telling her that they are neither male nor female.

The worst part of that, is that my daughter is beginning to believe that her sex is determined by her interests and behavior. For example, she thinks that if I swear too much, I may become male. The result is her belief that womanhood is some sort of cartoonish stereotype of old-fashioned gender roles.

It’s all so regressive. As a lifelong liberal, I am repulsed by the mainstream push to reinforce gender stereotypes and essentialism. What might be an even bigger crime for a writer like myself is that my daughter — who hasn’t even started kindergarten yet — thinks pronouns are a personal trait, not a part of speech. As horrified as I am at the regressive and sexist gender roles being pushed on my child, I am equally grimacing at the grammatical confusion this creating. Can’t the school teach my kid what a pronoun even is before scrambling her brain? 

Happy to air your personal experience. It’s horrifying. Another worried parent:

I just had the most intriguing conversation with my 17-year-old daughter. She said that if she ever had a child who was trans, she would totally support that. Curious, I asked why. She said, “Because it’s all about who you love, and it’s ok to love different people.”

I said, “Hold up, you’re talking about being gay. Trans doesn’t have anything do with who you love.”

She insisted that it did. 

I said again, “No, you’re talking about being gay.” 

She said, “They're the same thing. Whenever a guy wants to be a girl, it’s because he wants to be able to date other guys. And when a girl wants to be a guy, it’s so that she can date other girls.”

I said, “Now you're just confirming it — you are literally talking about being gay. There is no connection. Sometimes a guy transitions to being a woman, but still wants to date women — and will say that he has become a lesbian.”

She just didn’t believe me! She shook her head and said something like, “It’s all over TikTok, and 99 percent of the time, when someone wants to be trans, it’s because they’re just trying to be gay.”

We changed the subject, but even though this is just one data point (my daughter), I do wonder how prevalent her point of view is among other teenagers who watch TikTok.

God only knows. But the attempt to conflate very different gay, lesbian and trans experiences is part of an ideological project, rooted in postmodernism. It is designed to destroy anyone’s coherent understanding of stable human nature.

This next listener is on Staley’s side, not wanting to scapegoat queer theorists:

I have to agree with Peter Staley that mass indoctrination of critical trans/queer/gender theory in school children is not the cause of any rise in gender confusion and trans identity. Something else is going on. My theory: the biological organism of homo sapiens is undergoing evolutionary reproductive change due to mounting environmental stresses.

Let’s start with the simple observation that schools are only one small part of the cultural, political, environmental, familial and technological waters children swim in. One lesson from the story book How To Raise A Trans Inclusive Child is not going to make much of a sexual identity dent in the ocean of information, stress and confusion children are growing up in these days.

There are so many other stresses that are going to have far greater biological impacts. Overpopulation is of course the big one that cannot be discussed. There are too many rats in the cage. Humans now live on a planet in which they are constantly bathed in low doses of industrial and agricultural chemicals of every kind. It is in our food, air and water. Developing embryos are all bathed in these chemicals to some degree.

Throw in all the current economic and political chaos. Add in the bugaboo of social media and the cultural worship of money and fame. Body modification with tattoos, piercing and plastic surgery is a norm. You can create yourself to be anything.

A big change, of course, is the rising equality of women. Economically, that is going to give women a better hand to play in reproductive choice. House husbands are becoming more and more common. Stereotypical gender expectations are pretty much kaput. Let’s not forget the #MeToo movement — that certainly threw a wrench into heterosexual relations.

So what are these kids supposed to think about sex and gender?

These are just some of the dots that Staley suggested may need a bit more connecting. So it’s a bit of a stretch to pin any rising gender confusion and dysphoria on indoctrination with critical gender/queer/trans theory in school children. That would be about as effective as conversion therapy for gay men. It’s not that simple to convert.

But it’s very easy to confuse a third-grader. One more reader keeps another debate going:

I wanted to respond to your response to the theory that another reader “wanted to float by you” about the nature/nurture debate over trans identity and sexual orientation. First, I think you dismiss this person’s idea a bit too readily. The possibility that sexual orientation isn’t inborn (even though I agree with you that it’s involuntary) is actually relevant to this discussion.

Much of the modern trans movement incorrectly attempts to hitch its claims to the claims made by the gay rights movement, and “born this way” is no exception to this trend. If people are born trans, as this movement claims, then it’s theoretically possible to identify trans children with perfect accuracy and medicalize them before they go through puberty. But if instead, maturing into a trans adult is a stochastic process, then it’s impossible to predict perfectly which kids will persist in their trans identity after puberty. And in such a case, convincing the public to support youth medical transition is a much harder sell.

Additionally, I disagree with you on whether trans people choose to be trans. Dysphoric individuals like Lauren Black, who choose to deal with their gender dysphoria without transitioning, complicate the claim that transitioning is the only possible outcome for someone with gender dysphoria. I think there are some people with dysphoria severe enough that medical transition is the best choice for them. But the decision of whether to transition or handle dysphoria in other ways is still ultimately a choice.

As always, send your dissents, as well as other comments and personal stories, to dish@andrewsullivan.com.