“But, Angela Rayner!” How the Tories are elevating hypocrisy to an art form

Meme by Sadie Parker

It has recently been revealed that when the government told us that we the taxpayers had been made to foot the £15,000 bill for Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’s libel case, they lied. The cost of the investigation plus the legal fees plus the settlement amount minus the VAT rebate on the legal fees, was more like £57,000. Has there been a hue and cry in the newspapers with a fortnight of front pages screaming for Donelan to cover the cost of her libel out of her own wealthy pockets and refund the taxpayer? Not a bit of it. Most of the tabloids have responded with radio silence, even though the government’s pretence that the libelling of academics is part of the Culture Secretary’s job and any costs arising from it should therefore be borne by the taxpayer is objectively outrageous.

Meme by Sadie Parker

Since the Donelan story broke on March 5, two more jaw-dropping Tory scandals have come to light. A month after Donelan apologised to the academics she libeled, William Wragg confessed to having fallen into a honeytrap and passing the contact details of other MPs, staff of MPs, and Westminster journalists to the blackmailer for fear he would release embarrassing material to the public. To most sane people, this immediately screamed “national security risk”. Wragg resigned as vice-chair of the powerful 1922 committee, as chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee, and eventually the Tory whip, but not as an MP.

However, Wragg has now been topped in the charts of bizarre Tory scandals by Mark Menzies, MP for Fylde in Lancashire. On December 1 2023, the MP called his former campaign manager, 78-year-old Katie Fieldhouse (a one-time lady mayoress of Fylde and a life-long Tory) at 3.15 am. He demanded £5,000 to give to “bad people” who were holding him hostage in a flat somewhere. When she refused, he claimed it was a matter of life and death. When she still refused, he called his office manager, who paid the by then inflated sum of £6,500 from her savings, and was later reimbursed from campaign funds. This is, of course, an improper use of campaign funds, as is spending £14,000 of such monies on private healthcare, as Menzies has allegedly done. A month later, when it seemed the local association was not investigating Menzies’s behaviour, Ms Fieldhouse called the Tory Chief Whip Simon Hart to inform him. The government has therefore known of the scandal since January 3 this year. Remember that date.

Menzies is no stranger to controversy. In 2014 he had to resign as a ministerial aide after Rogerio dos Santos Pinto, a teenage Brazilian rent boy who was in the UK illegally, claimed Menzies had invited him to the Houses of Parliament for a tour, then offered him £250 for two hours of sex and asked him to procure drugs for him. Menzies vowed to set the record straight but never has. He was still the Tory candidate for Fylde in the 2015 general election, though. In 2017, he was investigated by police for allegedly getting a friend’s dog drunk and brawling with the friend. It cost the friend £500 in vet bills to treat the dog, but ultimately no charges were brought against Menzies. Again, he was still the Tory candidate for Fylde in the 2019 general election. Last August he caused a scene at a Last Night of the Proms concert featuring Katherine Jenkins, arriving late and intoxicated, and allegedly poking people in the front row, who had paid £150 for their seats, because he wanted to sit there with his party. Apparently, he used a flag to poke them. Peak Tory! Guess what? He is still the Tory candidate for Fylde in the next general election.

As with William Wragg, the whip was not removed from Menzies; he voluntarily relinquished it after a stern conversation with the chief whip – a conversation that took place, in Menzies’s case, over three-and-a-half months after the event was reported, and only because the story had broken in a newspaper article. However, the government did sack Menzies from his unpaid position as UK trade envoy to – of all places – Colombia. Perhaps Michael Gove will take his place…

Failure to even reprimand Donelan, let alone sack her or to remove the whip in the Wragg and Menzies cases, show Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to be weak, weak, weak. By not withdrawing the whip, the Tories avoid automatically triggering a standards investigation, which would likely lead to a suspension greater than 10 days in both cases, and thus to petitions of recall and the risk of pesky by-elections. (There will likely be a standards investigation eventually after any police investigation is concluded, so this is just a delaying tactic.) The other consequence Sunak will be taking into account is that every time he loses MPs, the number of letters needed to trigger a leadership contest reduces proportionately. Yesterday rebels needed 53 letters to begin the process of toppling him. Today that number is down to 52.

To summarise, here’s the lame Tory response to each of the latest scandals:

Michelle Donelan

£57k of taxpayers’ money for libelling an academic

Justification: “precedent” (Gareth Davies, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury)

William Wragg

Passed others’ details to a blackmailer, endangering national security

Verdict: “courageous” (Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer)

Mark Menzies

Fraud and possibly extortion, etc

Pleading: “innocent until proven guilty” (Grant Shapps, Defence Secretary)

Plus, in the case of all three, deflection with the cry of —

“But, Angela Rayner!”

For anyone who has not yet come across the campaign being run in tandem by Conservatives Central Head Quarters (CCHQ) and The Daily Mail against Angela Rayner, she stands accused of maybe underpaying between £1,000 and £3,500 tax on the sale of her house in 2015 a few months before she became an MP. Her accuser is former deputy chair of the Tory Party, Lord Michael Ashcroft, who is no stranger to tax anomalies, having avoided paying an estimated £112 million in tax by maintaining his ‘non-domiciled for tax’ (non-dom) status, despite a promise to establish residency in Britain in exchange for a peerage. He published his allegation in an unofficial biography of Angela Rayner called The Red Queen, serialised in The Daily Mail, which itself is owned by non-dom press baron Lord Rothermere, who also avoids contributing £millions to the UK Treasury’s coffers.

Ashcroft’s accusation must have been music to Tory Party Chairman Richard Holden’s ears. He famously worked with The Daily Mail in the spring of 2022 to try to skewer Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner over the confected “beergate” story. Holden reported the Labour leaders to Durham police, twice, for allegedly breaking lockdown rules, while The Daily Mail ran the non-story on its front page for 13 days, before moving it inside the paper on ‘Day 14’. The objective was to “both-sides” the Partygate scandal, covering events in 2020 when we spent much of the year in lockdown under a very strict regime. Boris Johnson broke the rules he set for others, lied about it, and then lied about lying about it. Holden hoped to draw a false equivalence between the lurid goings-on in Downing Street (suitcases full of booze, wine fridges, broken swing sets, etc.) and a working curry and beer after a hard day on the political campaign trail.

Starmer and Rayner were of course exonerated by the police, because Covid laws had been changed in early 2021 to allow for political campaigning and all that entails, including working late and taking a break for dinner. Tory MPs took advantage of those more flexible rules to campaign as well. Still, there are people who to this day believe the Tory/Daily Mail conspiracy theories about beergate, and they are unlikely to vote for Labour, so Holden might count that as a propaganda win.

When Lord Ashcroft’s accusations appeared in February this year, it was left to deputy Tory chair James Daly (MP for Bury North, majority: 105) to contact the police this time. Daily Mail reporter Dan Hodges is prosecuting a similar “Day 1 in the Big Brother House” strategy used for beergate, with lurid headlines and wild accusations treating Rayner like a career criminal. His fixation on Angela Rayner is akin to Piers Morgan’s unhealthy obsession with Meghan Markle. Hodges is amplified by the far-right gaslighting blog Guido Fawkes run by the unsavoury and aptly named Paul Staines, as well as by Harry Cole, The Sun’s political editor and ex-boyfriend of Boris Johnson’s now wife Carrie.

Tax experts have explained that Angela Rayner’s maximum liability is around £3,500, but there are reasons why this sum could be reduced or even offset completely. Lawyers have explained that rules on residence for electoral registration are different from those for tax, equally unclear, and that, in any case, the permitted time-period to bring charges expired years ago. It is thus a complete waste of police time. However, the Tories still aren’t listening to experts and The Daily Mail refuses to let the facts get in the way of a good story. James Daly has again written to the police and succeeded in getting them to re-open their investigation into Angela Rayner (at the taxpayers’ expense, of course), and yet when asked what it is he thinks she has done wrong on Sky News, he could not string a cogent sentence together.

Contrasting the heavy-handed approach to the Rayner nothingburger story with the way in which they have handled the more substantial and evidenced wrongdoing of Donelan, Wragg, and Menzies, it is beginning to look like the Tories, their client journalists, and their outriders on social media are hounding a working-class woman for having ideas and aspirations above her station. The hypocrisy is off the charts. As former Tory MP Nick Boles wrote in a letter to The Times,

“… her attackers cannot bear the idea that they are about to lose to a woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps. And who is going to wipe the floor with them.”

Meme by Sadie Parker

Tory cries of, “But, Angela Rayner!” are likely to persist all the way to the local elections in the hope it will muzzle her and help to stem the party’s losses. It is the equivalent to Trump’s cry of, “But, Hilary’s emails!” during the 2016 US presidential elections, which helped him win, but turned out to be a non-story. Angela Rayner has said if she is found to have done something wrong, she will resign. She received a standing ovation at the launch of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s manifesto for re-election and the Tories are still tanking in the polls, so it seems the public is wise to this attempt to smear her and it is rightly backfiring on them.

In the meantime, we must lobby our MPs to get the government to take the Donelan, Wragg, and Menzies cases more seriously. Donelan must refund the £57,000 her libel cost to us taxpayers and Rishi Sunak really ought to sack her. Wragg needs to come clean on who else he sent dick pics to and what details he passed to the blackmailer, and the government needs to thoroughly investigate whether any hostile actors were involved, instead of brushing off the public’s concerns about national security. And Menzies? Where to begin… At the very least we need to know who the “bad people” holding him hostage were and what they wanted. Is this yet another threat to national security from a Tory MP? The police must also investigate Menzies for fraud and embezzlement. The people of Fylde deserve a decent MP. Come to that, so do we all. For the millions of us who have been stuck with an MP from this scandal-riddled, corrupt and morally-bankrupt party, a general election can’t come soon enough.