An electoral stamp of approval for the Tories risks dishonesty becoming the new normal | Polly Toynbee

What kind of country has this become? We will know more when Thursday’s election results roll in by the weekend. Polls are narrowing but the Tories average 42% against Labour’s 35%. That’s extraordinary, when a party 11 years in power should expect heavy losses in midterm votes.

But these are exceptional times: after 14 months of draconian restrictions the UK emerges blinking into the light, vaccinated and liberated, bouncing with anticipated bingeing and boozing. Many households who’ve saved money through lockdown are awash with surplus cash and homeowners revel in Rishi Sunak’s deliberately created house-price boom. Even those who lost relatives and livelihoods celebrate freedom: if not, then success on Thursday tells the government it can safely ignore them as a discontented minority.

Politicians soliciting votes, like fixed-grin salesmen, are obliged to pretend the voter is always right. Out canvassing, they may listen politely to whatever atrocious views or insults get hurled at them, resisting the impulse to shake sense into unreasonable people. When politicians lose elections, they must blame themselves – but never the voter. Failure sends them into mea culpas of “listening” to seek out the fault within their party.

But the rest of us are under no such constraint to pretend the voter can’t be wrong or irresponsible, gullible or pork-barrel bribed, without checking basic facts available at the click of a mouse. Try Full Fact or the BBC’s Reality Check for clear and simple explanations.

Worse, many don’t bother to vote at all, proclaiming: “They’re all the same.” No, they never are, and the man in No 10 is a Trump-favoured knave. Citizens have a duty to vote: I’d make it compulsory, as non-voters forfeit any right to complain.

Everyone has been shown recent revelations of alleged dishonesty, greed, and arrogance, far beyond anything witnessed in their lifetimes. The full litany would overflow this column with allegations of contracts for cronies, Greensill lobbying, ministerial codes flouted, gold wallpaper, Mustique holidays and claims that nannies were paid for by donors, not to mention country-wrecking Brexit lies.

A prime minister beyond anyone’s control elbows out civil servants who demur in order to terrorise the rest. His government meddles with public bodies for political ends. His ministers in TV studios defend the indefensible. Mounting investigations may be shrugged off.

Scandals splashed across even devoutly Tory newspapers mean any slightly interested citizen must have noticed. Despite a corrupted voted system, the power of X on a ballot paper can throw the scoundrels out or, this week, inflict a humiliating condemnation of the Johnsonocracy. He will seize on anything less as endorsing his behaviour. If voters don’t care, none of it matters: nothing to see here in this “farrago of nonsense”, as he says. An electoral stamp of approval risks dishonesty becoming the new normal.

That’s why far more rides on these local elections in England than usual: most of the time, people should vote on the quality of their councils. But they look unlikely to turn out in multitudes to denounce their deplorable leaders. The “authentic” showman elected in 2019 has got Brexit done and he’s vaccinating everyone.

That’s not good enough. Citizens have a duty to keep their government straight. Myriad quotes make the point, but here’s Einstein: “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” If “evil” is too epic for tawdry selfishness, self-obsession and greed, remember Johnson has let the bodies pile higher in the UK than anywhere in Europe and casually imperilled peace in Northern Ireland.

Voters have no excuse, with Keir Starmer and his frontbench a thoroughly electable, decent and honest alternative compared with the rogues’ gallery opposite. As Johnson arms himself with a hyped-up culture war of English nationalism and Brexit tribalism, he thrives on a more dangerously divided country.

Deciphering local election results will be complex: despite a 1% lead over Tories in “red wall” seats, YouGov predicts Labour losing many of those wards and councils, and there’s no clear winner in sight in Hartlepool. Before Labour – a party that Rob Ford, professor at Manchester University, calls “as precariously put together as Tito’s Yugoslav republics” – breaks into its usual strife, it should consider this.

Be patient. Soon, voters will see the chancellor’s brutal budget cuts causing crises in the NHS, schools, policing and jobs. Meanwhile, later this month, watch Dominic Cummings, in a “suicide vest” of explosive tapes and texts, deliver potentially career-limiting blows to his old employer. If not quite yet, not this Thursday, the Johnson timebomb is ticking.

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