Introducing... Ladder Kicker: How the right-wing press endlessly expands the Tory Party Cinematic Universe
Like Marvel and DC, the Conservative Party and its media outriders need to endlessly invent new characters to deliver the same old storylines.
Since 1939, when Timely Comics — the forerunner of the modern Marvel — published Marvel Comics No.1 (which featured the Sub-Mariner and a version of the Human Torch1 amongst others), the Marvel universe has expanded to encompass roughly 72,659 characters.
Translated to our reality, that would give the entirety of Marvel comics a population equivalent to Purley’s. That’s not nearly enough to fill the New York2 where Peter Parker plies his trade as the local neighbourhood Spider-man, but it’s an ample supply of intellectual property for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to draw upon forever.
The Tory Party Cinematic Universe — the collection of MPs, advisors, spinners, columnists, media out-riders, and assorted gobs-on-sticks — has nowhere near 72,000 characters. Yes, the Conservative Party claims a membership of 200,000 but the percentage of those who can be given a column or are willing to debase themselves regularly on LBC or talkRadio is far, far smaller.
That’s why year in, year out the eco-system of think-tanks, blogs like Guido Fawkes, publications including The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and the talk radio stations introduce new characters to feed the columnist-industrial complex; young faces ready and willing to spout old opinions who seemingly appear out of nowhere, like comic book creations emerging from an accursed portal, hungry for attention and an appearance fee.
Last night, LBC provided a perfect example (“New young but fervently fogeyish pundit has dropped!”) when 19-year-old Samantha Smith, who has worked for Tory MP Lucy Allan and contributed to The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator since she left school last year and is now looking to combine life as a first-year at Manchester University with a career in punditry, appeared on Iain Dale’s show.
The parodically named Cross Question is a panel discussion in which Dale — a man permanently on the cusp of losing his shit pretending he’s terribly rational and tremendously polite — brings together an assorted collection of ghouls to offer soundbite solutions to complex problems.
Smith’s answer to the first question of the show, on the removal of the Universal Credit uplift, was clipped by LBC and shared on Twitter. The tweet which read…
Rather than ‘teaching people to rely on handouts’, Tory youth activist Samantha Smith suggests a reduction in Universal Credit will teach people to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’.
… was subsequently deleted after Smith, who had made the unfortunate error of saying something crass while Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were down, complained:
LBC do not misquote me. It is deeply unprofessional.
I was homeless for three years. I worked minimum wage jobs while claiming UC to make ends meet. I know how difficult it is to survive below the poverty line.
Don’t misinterpret me for clicks.
But did LBC — home to Nick ‘Austin Allegro’ Ferrari and hardly a bastion of journalistic ethics — misquote Smith’s answer on Cross Question, which featured that same origin story as her tweet of complaint? She said:
I don’t have experience in government of the Universal Credit system, but I have experience from the front line, I suppose. When I was 16, 17, I was homeless. I was claiming Universal Credit in order to keep a roof over my head while working three jobs to support myself and to keep food on the table while I studied through my A-levels. And I know from first-hand experience just how difficult it can be to scrape by on Universal Credit. I worked 35 hours one week and I was looking through my old pay stubs and I earned £130 for those 35 hours. And that was obviously taken out of my Universal Credit because I was working.
So I think that it’s about making employment more palatable as Andrew [‘Plebgate’ Mitchell], said and more realistic for people, especially those who are younger, who are making inexperienced, who are unskilled and through introducing alternative schemes, rather than teaching people to rely on handouts from the government. Teaching them the power of perserverance, the power of support, and the power of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and making a living for yourself. Because, I know from my own experience that I was often told, ‘Why do you work? It would be much easier and you would probably earn more if you weren’t working and were just claiming Universal Credit…’
“I think that’s a very interesting point,” said Dale. It was not; it was simply the kind of point that the host is used to hearing spewing from the mouths of commentators who look a lot like him. Ignoring the glaring internal contradiction of the line “I was homeless. I was claiming Universal Credit in order to keep a roof over my head…”, this was, once again, someone claiming to have used a ladder then suggesting it be pulled up for other people.
The “bootstraps” analogy so beloved by Tory politicians and hacks has drifted so far from its original 19th-century meaning — an impossibility — to become an article of faith for the Right. Smith joins a long line of Conservative talking heads who haven’t gained empathy from their own experiences but instead, high on the Tory creed of individualism, consider themselves simply stronger than those they’ve clambered over.
And isn’t it interesting that it’s always benefits that are “government handouts” and not life peerages for Tory donors?
Did LBC misquote Smith? No. It simply blasted her quote to a larger audience than she was comfortable dealing with. She elbowed the station into taking the clip down because her rhetoric was reaching beyond the angry cab driver, flat-roof pub owner and dubious uncle audience that usually tunes into LBC.
Just as hairdressing student turned Hovis-ad extra Darren Grimes has a schtick (he’s from the North, has been legally defined as too stupid to read forms, and will say literally anything for attention), Smith is developing her angle: She’s the person who relied on Universal Credit, implies others who do are feckless, and will pop up to say so in any right-wing outlet that wants her.
If — unlike Grimes, who is stuck producing his hyperactive YouTube videos and wanking for coins3 on GB News — Smith plays her cards right she may be able to move up from the F-List of Tory Party Cinematic Universe characters as figures like Kate Andrews and Tom Harwood have done before her.
Andrews first appeared in the British media as a spokesperson for Republicans Abroad before moving into the world of right-wing think-tanks, starting at the Adam Smith Institute then crossing to the Institute of Economic Affairs. She’s now firmly ensconced at The Spectator. Harwood, meanwhile, was the Muttley to drink driving enthusiast Paul Staines’ Dickhead Dastardly at the Guido Fawkes blog before moving to GB News, where he’s the political correspondent and hosts his own unwatchable show.
Having witnessed Smith’s villain origin story last night, you can expect her to pop up all over the British media now. A Question Time appearance cannot be far off along with slots on Politics Live and chats with talkRadio in between its endless conversations with Brendan O’Neill, his ever-expanding forehead threatening to swallow the webcam, and Calvin Robinson, who rebrands himself more often than a dodgy Amazon Marketplace seller.
As in any good Marvel comic, while the big bads remain the same — Murdoch, Rothermere, the Barclays and the rest — they always need new henchpeople to do their bidding and deliver their lines.
It doesn’t matter if what Smith says is the same cruel and callous rhetoric as a dozen other commentators can offer; she’s young and can keep it together on television so she’ll soon be everywhere, presented as proof that you can be young and Tory. That she’s an outlier and simply saying what she knows the magazines and broadcasters are buying won’t get a mention.
And if it did, she’d probably say she was misquoted.
This Human Torch was not Johnny Storm of The Fantastic Four — he didn’t turn up until 1961 — but an android with the same powers called Jim Hammond.
New York currently has a population of over 8 million.
Not literally, though I suspect GB News would broadcast that if it thought it might nudge the viewing figures up.