Newport-born and bred, novelist and critic Gary Raymond responds to the announcement the Tory Party Conference 2021 will be descending on his hometown, and asks if it really means what we think it means.
The circus is coming to town. The Conservative and Unionist Party, the governing tribe of the United Kingdom, has announced that in 2021 their annual conference will be heading south, bringing its marquees, elephants, rosy cheeked haemophiliacs, acrobats, algorithimicists, lion-tamers, and do-gooders, to the Mordorian climes of the lost City of Newport. Usually the Tory Party circus pitches up in the sleepy retirement community of Llandudno in north Wales, welcomed at the town gates by Sheriff Guto Bebb atop his black stallion, The Annihilator. However, Bebb is no more, having lost favour with the Court after rumours began to circulate that he had stopped kicking sand in the faces of single mums on his weekly walk along North Shore Beach. Bebb was replaced in the 2019 General Election by Robin Millar, a pro-No Deal Brexit pro-Unionist Tory automaton, trained in the black arts of anonymity, who must have been looking forward to welcoming the Show to his new vassal. But it’s not to be. Probably something to do with a Dominic Cummings focus group. But Llandudno’s loss is Newport’s gain – or perhaps that’s the other way around, depending on whether or not you think Boris Johnson is the sort of guy you could have a right ol’ time with down the local boozer.
The last time Boris was in Newport – or at least the last time I remember – he took the press with him up the top of Ridgeway to get a coffee from a new café built inside the brickwork of abandoned public toilets, erstwhile known locally as being a clandestine meeting place for gay men. I don’t think the café is called The Cottager, but it should be. When Johnson visited on his electioneering tour of former illicit sex cubicles, there was a bit of a stink in the immediate vicinity. I lived in Newport at the time, my hometown, and spent on average at least 30% of my day in the pub. Nobody was impressed by Johnson coming to Newport, apart from maybe the owners of the café, looking for better press than what I’m giving them here.
This happened in 2016, when Johnson was Mayor of London, and most well-known for acting like a clown with half-decent Latin on Have I Got New for You, and for his bendy buses (or was it his rent-a-bike scheme? – nobody really cared). Johnson was probably best known for just being Boris, the most ludicrous Tory in a cabal of nincompoops. In Newport, we quite liked that he was twice voted Mayor of London, because it meant that Londoners were just as thick as the general Tory-loving electorate who kept putting David Cameron into office, and they weren’t so much better than the rest of us after all.
But that didn’t mean, in Newport, we wanted their sort turning up here. Let’s not forget, in the heart of the city stands the Westgate Hotel to remind us that Newport has a claim to be the birthplace of modern British democracy. It is the site of the Newport Rising of 1839, when British soldiers fired on the thousands of Chartists who had marched from as far as Pontypool and Blackwood to demand the release of their fellow activists imprisoned in the hotel. Twenty-two men died that day, and none of them gave their lives for the right to drive to Barnard Castle whenever you like.
Johnson’s visit in 2016, however, marked a noticeable turn of the eye – or more a lift of the skirt – from the Tories to a city hitherto seen as a grotty land of knuckle-dragging card-waving donkey-jacket wearing Labour orcs. Any rose-cheeked Tory boy looking for a schooner of sherry in one of Newport’s pubs could be guaranteed a kick-in. The Conservative Party, of course, have always been quite ruthless at cutting ties with societies who didn’t doff the cap whenever their carriages rode through. Why waste time trying to convince the people of their predetermined servitude if they’re only going to spit in your eye? I get it.
So, why the change of heart? The answer is simple: UKIP. Newport is very much like all the other working-class communities who voted for Brexit in 2016, in that many politically disengaged people looking for someone to blame for decades of misrule of their country began to hear easy answers in the racist soundbites of Nigel Farage. The UKIP vote in Newport surged from nowhere, and although they never really came close to toppling Labour from either MP or MS seats, they beat the Tories into third place a few times. In 2016, the Tories were panicking that UKIP had stolen their racists and began a strategy to not only win them back, but to begin a process of purloining Labour racists too. (Not to worry: Jeremy Corbyn ensured there would always be a home for old Labour bigots, anti-Semites and misogynists in his party). Fast forward a few years into the eye of the apocalypse, and now those one-time UKIP voters are firmly ensconced as the Conservative base vote. Job done.
But this means the Tories seem to believe that Newport is a place where they’ll be welcomed. Unfortunately, they have decided to have their conference in the new International Conference Centre out on the edges of the city, and not one of Newport’s three hundred and forty Wetherspoons pubs. So, in truth, the people of Newport, and certainly not the new Tory racist base, will even notice they’re there. The Tory Party may claim that 8,000 attendees will bring with them more than £20m to the local economy, but Newport knows what a crock of manure that figure is. Newport knows because it’s been here before. The International Conference Centre is the new chrome shed built on the side of the Celtic Manor Resort, the Mar-a-Largo of Newport’s only millionaire Terry Matthews. In 2012, it hosted Golf’s Ryder Cup, one of the most prestigious sporting events for white twats and Tiger Woods in the world. At the time of that event, I was working as a barman in a Newport city centre pub, and the hot topic of conversation was just how much work the Celtic Manor had put in to making sure visitors to the Ryder Cup didn’t accidentally wander into Newport. It did nothing for the “local economy”. Likewise, when the Celtic Manor hosted the 2014 NATO Summit not once did we see Barak Obama tucking in to a full English in The Pot.
Johnson’s Tory Party, a body now of zealots, half-wits, and empty shirts, should not be underestimated, however. They come to Newport because there is nothing to be gained in Llandudno. Newport voted for Brexit, and even though polls have since shown that Newport has changed its mind, the Circus pitching up on the eve of the Welsh Assembly elections in May 2021 suggests Dominic Cummings smells blood in the birthplace of Democracy. Newport’s two excellent MS’s, Jayne Bryant and John Griffiths, will now have to campaign with tanks on their lawn. Tanks in the guise of a circus. But Newport won’t be fooled again. After all, even if you like clowns, we’re living in a world grown tired of pranks.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.