I’m keeping a completely open mind on the Tory leadership contest. So long as it’s either Priti Patel or Steve Baker, I really don’t mind who wins…
As for the more favoured candidates (at least as far as the bookies are concerned), what I’m really not seeing so far is much evidence that any of them has quite woken up to the existential threat facing the Conservative Party.
Perhaps the results of the European Parliament elections will concentrate their minds. But I doubt it. The Conservatives have already priced in the inevitable fact that the Brexit Party is going to be the runaway winner of the EU elections and that it will mark the biggest electoral defeat in the Conservatives’ 185-year history.
Yet still, from what I’ve seen from their interviews, statements to the press, and campaign slogans so far, they all still think it’s business as usual.
That is, all the Tory leadership candidates believe that
- Conservatives are the natural party of government
- The next election will be run in the centre ground.
- Whoever wins must reunite the party’s left and right and build a broad tent coalition.
This has all been established lore in the Westminster bubble for so long that it has achieved the level of folk wisdom. But what very few inside the bubble have realised is the degree to which things have changed, and changed utterly, since the Brexit genie was let out of the bottle in June 2016.
The Brexit genie changed a lot of things. One thing it did was drive quite a few people on the Remain side of the argument completely bonkers. There’s a whole separate article to be written about this: people who you thought were reasonably normal but who turned out to be gibbering loons.
Obvious examples include: Professor AC Grayling; Andrew Adonis; Anna Soubry; Matthew Parris. I’m sure you’ll enjoy coming up with a few more names.
Less obvious ones include at least one of the current batch of leadership candidates: Rory Stewart.
Do you remember how, not so long ago, he came across like the future of the Conservative Party? He had hinterland — an exotic career, first in the military, then as an adviser in both Iraq and Afghanistan; a penchant for walking very long distances; a popular constituency MP in the wild north.
Since the Brexit referendum, though, he has shown his true colours. He’s not a rock solid Thatcherite, after all, but yet another squishy social justice warrior with disastrous ideas about climate change.
This is one of the greatest services the Brexit referendum has done to the nation so far: it has acted as a touchstone by which you can judge in an instant who is really sound and who belongs to the decaying, corrupt, ideologically bankrupt old order that Brexit is about to sweep away.
The current favourite to replace Theresa May is Boris Johnson. But I worry that Bojo has lost his mojo.
I noticed this last October at the Conservative Party conference when he gave his big speech: there were queues round the block; everyone wanted to be there for the moment when Boris staked his claim as the heir to Thatcher — or, as I rather hoped at the time, the British Donald Trump.
But he fluffed it. It was competent, but unmemorable. Neither then nor since has Boris shown any indication that he understands the scale of the task ahead of him. The Conservative Party is in such a bad way it doesn’t need a loveable buffoon to jolly it along and give the chaps and chapesses a bit of a fillip. It needs a cancer surgeon.
Boris has spent his career so far playing the fool as Prince Hal. If he ever wants to become Henry V, he needs the moment where he says to Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man.”
Falstaff, in this analogy, would be all the things — both people and ideas — which are currently making the Conservative Party effectively unelectable.
These would include disaster areas like Amber Rudd, an utterly useless throwback from the Theresa May era who seems to imagine that just because she once accidentally held one of the great offices of state — Home Secretary — she has a right to be considered as a key player in the current leadership contest.
Rudd is heavily hinting that, despite having once been spectacularly rude about Boris during the referendum campaign, she now wouldn’t be at all averse to standing on a joint leadership ticket with him.
Johnson should treat this offer much as Konrad Adenauer might have done if Admiral Karl Doenitz had suddenly suggested that, what with his rich past experience of government, he might be of help in the new German administration.
I worry first that Boris lacks the ruthlessness to rid himself of such albatrosses from the old, discredited Cameron/May order.
I worry even more so that he lacks the ideological rigour to do what is necessary to transform the Conservative Party and make it electable again.
Boris has repeatedly invoked the spectre of One Nation Toryism. So, it seems, have pretty much all the other candidates – apart from Dominic Raab (making him my favourite among the favourites).
But One Nation Toryism is just one of those empty, all-things-to-all-men phrases which means nothing more than “Please like me everyone. I promise I won’t do anything too radical that might upset anyone.”
And what Conservatism needs right now is not more of the squishy, apologetic, spineless centrism we’ve seen in every Conservative prime minister since John Major. What it needs is a new Thatcher.
Boris perfectly has it within him to be that character — just so long as his Churchillian sense of destiny kicks in and obliterates his appeasing, moderating, sell-out tendencies, such as this utterly stupid idea he has that what we need right now is more climate change action.
I’ll come back to the Conservatives’ climate change problem in a separate column, once the EU results have come in.
Here’s my big fear: the Conservatives don’t have it in them to find the Thatcher they need to lead them to victory. Which means it’s game over. Which means it’s probably Jeremy Corbyn.
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