Henry Morris should look a lot more stressed than he does, though it’s true that this is the first time I’ve met him (over Zoom), and he has such confident hair that it would be hard to see uncertainty beneath it. “Everyone seems to be preoccupied with my mullet,” he agrees. His wife, Ellie, is two days past her due date so their second child could show up at any minute. Into that happy but high-stakes scene, Morris dropped a hand grenade last Wednesday: a video revealing that the Secret Tory, a Twitter account lampooning Conservatives from a thousand directions, has been him all along.
Since its inception in 2019, the account – which now has nearly 200,000 followers – has been the focus of magnetised speculation: “Retired anonymous Conservative MP, part-time arms dealer” was how he described himself, though everyone knew that wasn’t real-real. He would tweet imagined WhatsApp messages between ministers, Alice in Wonderland fantasias that disappeared into the wilds of Liz Truss’s ignorance and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s creepiness. Or he would write accounts of Conservative chaos in the style of Swift or Chaucer. Nobody was in any doubt that it was parody, but somehow, between the dense and granular detail, and the playful, insidery tone, people thought he was very close to the action; a special adviser, maybe? At the very least, Westminster-bubble-based. Lots of Conservative MPs were following him on Twitter; people started to slide into his DMs to congratulate him on a point well landed, or make suggestions.
Initially, he just enjoyed the popularity. “I’d read a few books on how to write sitcoms, and there were loads of caveats, such as: ‘If you’re that person who thinks you’re really funny in the pub, just be wary that you might not be that person who’s funny to everyone else.’ I just assumed I was that guy. But then I just made people laugh straight away.” Over the next year or so, though, the adage of master satirist Chris Morris started to weigh on him. “‘If the people you’re taking the piss out of are enjoying it, you’re not doing it right.’ I’d definitely been seduced by these high-status people laughing at it. After that, I started doing it properly, which is much more satisfying,” he says.
Morris started masquerading, too, as the Papua New Guinea Courier’s UK correspondent, and those columns – an outsider’s dry amusement cut with the howling indignation of the real UK citizen having to live through this clown show – are some of my favourite chronicles of our dark times.
Finally, though, he decided that remaining anonymous was contributing to a fake news environment and he should out himself. “We made this video to say who I was and we messed around with it for ages,” he says. A school friend, Benjamin Harvey, collaborates on the videos “and ended up tweeting it on Ellie’s due date.” He didn’t think it would make any impact, “and instead it’s gone mental”.
He was interviewed on the BBC in what is a telling snapshot of the state of our media. The anchor didn’t really know what to make of him – what is this regular person doing inside the commentariat? Maybe I’m being unfair, but she looks at him as if he is sort of unpredictable and unsanitary, like a bird in an airport. A journalist from the Daily Mail doorstepped him. From the outside, it’s quite funny, a journalist driving six hours from London to come back with a lot of wrong details and some quotes from neighbours about how nice Morris is. But it can’t be fun from the inside, when your wife is about to go into labour.
Morris, 40, grew up in Yorkshire, his mother a teacher, his father an archaeologist. “My dad is very clever, he has a lot of varied interests, both my parents have, which they seem to have passed on to me.” His father persuaded him to play Fleance in Macbeth when he was 12 with Abbey Shakespeare Players, technically an am-dram company but more of a hyper-literary cult, which introduced him to St Dogmaels Abbey in Wales, where the company stages its annual performance. He now lives in a Welsh valley that, according to folklore, is the entrance to the underworld. “It’s paradise,” he says.
It was through Abbey Shakespeare Players that he met his wife in his early 20s, but “I was a bit wild at the time, getting into all sorts of scrapes, so she wasn’t having anything to do with me then.” Before that, he’d gone to a “not very good comprehensive school, which I hated”, then became an auxiliary nurse, “which is the hardest amount of work you can do for the least amount of money. Everything I’ve ever done since I’ve felt lucky to do, because that was proper graft. That taught me to grow up quite fast,” he says, though stresses not that fast. “When I wasn’t nursing, I was out getting hammered.” He went to the University of Manchester to study comparative religion, moving to London in his late 20s, “because Ellie was there”. He had recently decided to “stop being a dickhead and start doing some exercise”. He arrived in London as a guy who could run 110 miles without stopping, “over the Cleveland hills as well; there’s more ascent in it than Everest”, and became a personal trainer. (His other notable big run was to every site where a hen harrier had been poisoned or otherwise destroyed, to preserve grouse shoots; that was for Chris Packham’s charity, Wild Justice.)
“I chose a gym in north London, picked up a load of clients straight away and suddenly I was mixing with all these illustrious people. I went to London completely braced, thinking, ‘Everyone is really switched on and really fast and sharp,’ and I got there and thought, ‘Everyone’s just the same as the people I know back home, maybe not as funny, but they’re doing much more interesting stuff.’ All my mates back home were really clever and sharp, and working behind a till; all they’d need to do is move to London and they would be earning six figures.” I know exactly what he means: there is a perception of media and political elites as operating on a higher plane, and it’s absolutely warped, but I’m not sure it’s about London – isn’t it about class? “But I’m middle-class. This is a different confidence, isn’t it?” (Well, yes, but I think the confidence comes from private education so it’s still about class.)
Meanwhile Ellie was working on dance music shows for BBC Radio 1, and Morris “got to know loads of people in the music industry who had two or three pretty lame anecdotes about the time they did something wacky. I’d be thinking: ‘Is that all you’ve got? This is completely commonplace behaviour.’” He and Ellie started Field Maneuvers, a no-frills rave spanning a weekend, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
As his personal training business grew, he was working at a gym with two friends who “were also reformed characters; they’d been in even more scrapes than I had when I was younger. And we had these baronesses, lords and millionaires coming in and out, really getting off on talking to people with accents. I kept thinking: ‘You’re sitting in the House of Lords and I can run rings around you in an argument if I have to.’ I was just so underwhelmed.”
That sense intensified after he first started his Twitter account, a parody of the Conservative MP Mark Francois, which he did “desperately hoping that some of these Tories have got more about them, but they’re really not very bright”. Encouraged by the Times columnist and author Caitlin Moran, who was one of his gym clients, he turned his next Twitter persona into a book, The Diary of a Secret Tory MP: (Almost!) True Stories from the Heart of British Politics, which is really sprightly, droll and powered by deep disillusionment. “I’d always thought [about politicians]: ‘There are some bad apples but largely they are trying to make the world a better place.’ The more I’ve become immersed in it, the more I’ve thought: ‘These people are proper wrong ’uns.’ The 2019 Conservative MPs are self-interested, they’re corrupt, they’re mean-spirited, largely stupid and, as far as I can tell, filling their helicopters and firing up the shredders before they get booted out at the next election.”
Morris has now gone “wildly out to the left”, he says, and is working on another book. He is still personal training (remotely), chopping logs, learning Welsh and working on a sitcom idea. He thinks a lot about the role of parody in the age of disinformation, the point at which exaggeration for moral effect just feeds into nobody knowing what is and isn’t true. “The one objective is to destroy the Tories; amplify their ludicrous behaviour and turn it into comedy by making it grotesque.” The Secret Tory reached the end of its natural life, but there is more to come, I feel certain; Morris is not a man who goes home before he has achieved his objective.