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The Tory plot thickens

May 31, 2019   11 mins

Twenty five years ago, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met in a discreet Islington restaurant named Granita, to (allegedly) make a deal. A leadership race had been triggered by the death of John Smith. Blair, determined to be Labour’s next leader, asked Brown to abstain from running. In exchange, Brown would be named Chancellor – and Blair promised to give way to him after two terms.

Today, the Tories are facing a similarly momentous leadership race. We asked our contributors which pair should be plotting their next moves at this critical juncture.


Norman for PM, Halfon for Chancellor

Peter Franklin, Editor of UnPacked

The Granita deal was much more than a strategic alliance to win a leadership contest. One of either Blair or Brown would have won anyway – and either would have become Prime Minister in 1997. Nor was it a grand bargain between rival ideologies. The two men’s philosophical differences weren’t that great at the time – and though exacerbated by subsequent rivalry, they look trivial set against Corbynism.

What really was significant about the Pact was the coming together of tribes, the melding of cultures, the reconciliation of temperaments. Out of that came a political ‘offer’ – New Labour – that was bigger than either man, with appeal across party lines, class distinctions and different parts of the country.

Today’s Conservative Party needs a Granita deal of its own – by which I don’t mean a cynical stitch-up between rival candidates, nor some unlikely meeting of closed minds. Collusion between careerists is inevitable; compromise between purists impossible.

No, the only fruitful dialogue to be had is between principled but open-minded people, with different but compatible, perspectives. If the individuals involved also happen to vary greatly in personality, background and presentation, so much the better.

Of course, Blair and Brown struck their deal after 15 years in opposition and four consecutive election defeats. Their Conservative equivalents must do so while their party is in government and amid the radical uncertainties of Brexit. It’s a tall order.

There is no Tory Blair and Brown right now – and perhaps not ever. It might just be too late for the Party to save itself. But if there are two Conservative MPs I’d love to see sit down together and shamelessly eavesdrop upon, it’s Jesse Norman, the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex. The two men are as different as their constituencies – the genial, patrician scholar versus the energetic champion of working class conservatism. I guess it’s a silly comparison, and certainly an inexact one, but one could see them as the Edmund Burke (Norman) and Benjamin Disraeli (Halfon) of the 21st century Conservative Party.

There is a lot of pressure on the Conservatives right now to pick a side – not just on Brexit, but in a wider culture war of which Leave and Remain are just aspects. The Party must resist the temptation – it needs all of its supporters: middle and working class, young and old, leave and remain.

The party needs to become good collectively at what Norman and Halfon are good at individually – appealing to different wings of a winning Conservative coalition. Just as there’s no conceivable Conservative majority without both of their constituencies there’s no viable Conservative offer that doesn’t combine their intellectual and emotional dispositions.

I ought to disclose that I know both of them a bit – enough to say hello to, but not well enough to know whether they talk to one another very much.

If they don’t, I hope they put that right. They have a lot to talk about.


Johnson for PM, Rudd for Chancellor

James Bloodworth, journalist and author of Hired

Since I’m a Labour voter, no Tory would suit me better in the top job than Boris Johnson. Amber Rudd as his Chancellor might even lend his government an air of competence and normality.

This might sound counter-intuitive, given how much the Left detests Johnson. But bear with me. Some of the dislike is based on his Etonian background – which he can hardly be blamed for. But the real animus against him is a product of his opportunism. He is, even for some within the Tory party, an unprincipled charlatan – someone who will do and say just about anything to reach the top. Just imagine how the Left could capitalise on the division he’d cause on the Right.

Johnson is relatively clever, but this won’t worry Labour too much. Judging by his gaffe-prone stint as foreign secretary, Johnson will soon serve up some easy hits for the opposition.

If he were to emerge as the next PM, we could expect a brief honeymoon period in which his popularity – already high for a politician – surges. But beyond that, the unpredictability that makes Johnson a compelling TV personality and newspaper columnist will be ill-suited to the task of guiding Britain smoothly through its current political turmoil.

And if Labour were to replace Corbyn – now 70-years-old – with a more pragmatic, business-like and less polarising figure, a chaotic-seeming Johnson government could soon find itself ousted.


Gove for PM, Norman for Chancellor

Chris Deerin, director of Reform Scotland

So the Granita has been reopened for one night only, so that yet another government can be cooked up at the TB-GB memorial table. In walks a bespectacled man with a rubber face, followed soon after by a giant in bicycle clips. Next enters a goblinesque creature filming himself on a mobile phone.

Michael Gove, Jesse Norman and Rory Stewart – for it is they – have agreed to carve up the new administration between them. Gove, with his vast experience of government, is to be PM. It’s agreed he has the intellectual dexterity to deliver Brexit but also to reach out to the centre ground with the kind of policies he pursued in the Justice and Environment departments. The fact that he’s also a Jock offers some hope of a hearing in Scotland, which seems close to having one foot out the door.

Norman, who used to work in the City and is a biographer of Adam Smith, is chancellor-elect. The author of a pamphlet on Compassionate Conservatism, he promises to restore the best bits of Cameronism. A keen trumpeter, he is also keen to start a colliery band with the new Cabinet to reach our to the north and Wales.

Stewart broadcasts live on Twitter the fact that he is to be Foreign Secretary, and announces he will begin by walking from Whitehall to Africa, where he hopes to pick up the odd side gig as temporary governor of some warring state.

They may not be a perfect trio, but politics is roundly screwed and all three at least have the benefit of being clever, considered and quirky as hell. A hinterland is, surely, the least we can ask, if not the best we can hope for.


Gove for PM, Hancock for Chancellor

Marie Le Conte, author of A Guide To Westminster Gossip

At time of writing, most people seem convinced that Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister. For the sake of my mental health – and to keep this prediction interesting – let’s assume that he won’t.

Who will, then? Michael Gove seems to be a decent bet. He was part of the Vote Leave campaign but has managed to retain the (sometimes begrudging) respect of some of his Remain colleagues; his DEFRA stint bolstered his green credentials; and he has been plotting more or less for as long as anyone can remember.

Word on the street is that he has got a number of interesting names joining his team, and though the number of nominations he has received so far isn’t overwhelming, it will go up.

So, who would be his chancellor? Matt Hancock would be a solid choice. The health secretary was on the losing side of the referendum but has been reasonable in his approach to Brexit since then. More importantly, he is one of the only cabinet ministers of the current administration, bar Gove himself, to have consistently offered a positive and forward-looking vision in his brief(s).

His enthusiasm for tech could sit well in a Gove government, and his time spent at the Bank of England and with George Osborne would make him qualified to run the Treasury.

He is currently in competition with Gove, of course, to claim the premiership; but it seems very unlikely that he’ll make it to the top two. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that he has picked up the support of several bright 2017 intakers, which isn’t to be sniffed at.

As for where their own Granita would take place – there are many exciting tech start-ups where a sustainable salad would do just the trick.


Stewart for PM, Gove for chancellor

Ian Birrell,  foreign reporter and columnist

The 25th anniversary of the Blair-Brown pact is a reminder of the speed of change. Not just in restaurants, with Granita long gone, along with its modernist menu that would now feel distinctly old hat. But also in politics, since the era of triangulation to woo floating voters from rival tribes has been replaced by the howl of populism and fury of Twitter.

So it is curious that in the early skirmishes of this strange Tory leadership contest, with new candidates emerging daily and seeking to grasp the poisoned chalice of delivering Brexit, a most unlikely figure has emerged from the pack by offering a fresh take on social media.

Yet Rory Stewart, a fogeyish character who seems to have stepped from the pages of a Victorian novel, has shown far more grasp of modern campaigning than his slicker rivals.

This was unexpected. We knew that Stewart has a brilliant mind, as befits a former Harvard professor, combined with that astonishing backstory that took him from a stint in the army to walking across Afghanistan and running chunks of Iraq. The bigger surprise is how well his charm, his confidence, his intellect and his optimism comes across in those homespun video diaries of visits to streets and parks.

It is hard to see any of his rivals talking about “energy, compassion and love” in their sales pitch to fellow Tories. Stewart is offering authenticity, boldness and humanity in a contest filled with candidates defined by calculation and caution. He has shown he places ambition below principle by ruling out a cabinet post if Boris Johnson triumphs. Little wonder he has generated such a positive response, with warm words and hundreds of thousands of hits.

He is a true Tory moderniser, with his strong sense of tradition, passion for institutions and belief in Burke’s ‘little platoons’ rather than grand reform. Some on the Right sneer that he is only appealing to non-Tory voters – just as ultra-leftists dismissed Blair as a closet Conservative, forgetting that to win elections you must break out of tribal boundaries. Besides, even ardent Brexiteers have professed their admiration for his brains and wit.

The problem for Stewart is not winning a general election, since he could crush Corbyn. Nor even to woo Tory members, since I suspect he might appeal far more to associations than the flashy, untrustworthy favourite Boris Johnson. No, his biggest hurdle is convincing MPs looking in fear at the return of Nigel Farage that he is their saviour, regardless of all the evidence that appeasing populists proves disastrous for centre-right parties.

So maybe Stewart should take Michael Gove down to Afghan Kitchen, just round the corner from where Blair and Gordon Brown did their infamous deal in Islington, and persuade him over a hearty lamb chalau to become his Chancellor. Gove has also started his campaign strongly. And what a formidable pair they might prove, especially since the prime minister could rein in his chancellor’s more gung-ho instincts on foreign policy and force him to concentrate on a domestic agenda. They would certainly make politics more interesting – and might even restore a little faith in our tarnished political system.


Stewart for PM, Gove for Chancellor

Jenny McCartney, journalist and author

Rory Stewart is, it has been said, the Conservative leadership candidate that everyone who is not Conservative would vote for. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Although Stewart will obviously need the support of the party if his outside bid is to get anywhere, the ability to speak to the country as a whole is a rare quality among politicians – and one we desperately need. Conservative MPs and membership would be well advised to take the long view.

In recent days, Stewart has been promoting his campaign by getting out on British streets under the hashtag #RoryWalks. He appears unafraid of ordinary people, and ready to take their concerns seriously. Like David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Stewart is an old Etonian, but he has neither Cameron’s breezy, big-picture arrogance nor Johnson’s – often misplaced – confidence in his own ability to wing it.

Instead, Stewart appears concerned with the detail of government policy: where it is going wrong, and how that affects the lives of citizens trapped within it. That this should presently seem revolutionary is a comment on where our politics has gone so severely awry.

There are two enormous challenges for any future prime minister: firstly to manage Brexit in some workable form, and secondly to shape the kind of country that the UK becomes thereafter. In post-Brexit Britain there will be an immediate danger that the country will be influenced by the divisive ideological politics of Trump’s US, and the negative presence in Europe of his former strategist Steve Bannon. Stewart, with his own nuanced belief in what Britishness means and can mean in the future, seems the candidate best placed to resist this form of political osmosis.

For chancellor, I would suggest Michael Gove, on the basis that he is another Conservative with effective ministerial experience, a degree of political resilience and an actual interest in policy.

One more thing: Stewart has served as prisons minister, Gove as Justice Secretary, and – if neither man had the time required to turn our criminal justice system around – at least both have some idea of the magnitude of its current failings.


Lidington for PM, Margot James for chancellor

Julie Bindel, journalist and campaigner

I am going to plump for David Lidington, known as ‘Mr Europe’, as the best candidate plotting his way to Number 10 right now. Lidington is best placed to ensure Britain leaves the EU with a decent deal, or, dare I hope, not at all.

Lidington’s policies, aside from his views on Europe, certainly do not tally with mine. His voting record shows that he has largely been against gay rights; is pro-foxhunting; and has had a mixed record on same-sex marriage, as well as general equality and human rights issues.

Having said that, Lidington is a One Nation Tory, and therefore believes that the privileged and the wealthy should pass on benefits to the poor and weak. This form of Tory paternalism is certainly better than the ruthless views held by some of his colleagues in the Cabinet.

Margot James should deputise him, because although she is anti-trade union, and a self-confessed Thatcherite, James is known to be liberal and compassionate: she believes in rehabilitation for prisoners, and advocates for disadvantaged young people.

James came out as a lesbian in 2004, when she was selected as the Tory candidate to stand against Frank Dobson for London’s Holborn and St Pancras seat. When she eventually became an MP, in 2010, James continued to be involved in charitable work – focusing on the NHS and young people. She was also on the board of Abantu, an NGO that trains women from 40 African nations. As a Labour voter, I have to admit that some Tories are more decent than others.


Stewart for PM, Truss for chancellor

Rachel Cunliffe, Comment and Features Editor at City A.M.

The newly minted International Development secretary and utter underdog Rory Stewart gets my vote to be the next prime minister on three counts.

First, he actually understands the complexities of leaving the EU and reassuringly hasn’t been dragged into the game all the other candidates seem to be playing in order to out-Brexit one another – as evidenced by his spectacularly meticulous take-down of why trading on WTO terms would be a disaster.

Second, he’s by far the most qualified from a foreign policy perspective, with a varied career at the foreign office (he essentially ran a province in Iraq), detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, and an impressive list of languages including a variant of Persian. We keep hearing about the importance of a “global Britain”, but he’s the only candidate with the credentials to secure the UK’s place in an ever-more globalised world.

Third, he admitted to smoking opium at a wedding in Iran. I mean, what? Even Boris couldn’t come up with a better anecdote.

Stewart is, however, something of a character from another century. For chancellor, the Tories need someone effortlessly modern. Enter Liz Truss, one of the few Conservatives who actually seems to understand how the internet works. From lambasting EU digital directives to championing the gig economy, Truss is the millennials’ politician – votes the Tories desperately need to start winning.She’s an energetic free-marketeer which would help balance Stewart’s old-world conservatism. Oh, and she’d be the first woman to ever hold the role – what a coup for the Conservatives.


Gove for PM, Stewart for Chancellor

Adrian Pabst, author of The Demons of Liberal Democracy

For twenty years HM Treasury led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer has dominated Downing Street and British politics – Brown-Blair, Osborne-Cameron and Hammond-May. Together with the City’s capture of the Treasury, HMT’s hegemony over government has cemented the power of finance capitalism, a lack of democracy and a metropolitan contempt of the country that brought us Brexit. Now it is time for No 10 to take back control and assert the primacy of politics and a renewal of democratic rule. Perhaps more than any other leading Tory, Michael Gove gets this – and that is why he should be the next Prime Minister.

Gove has both the intuition and the intellect to understand the twin dangers of excessive individualism and oppressive statism that threaten Britain – a revived Thatcherite economics or the retro-leftism of Corbyn. He would be a radically reforming PM who would combine the fight for greater economic justice with the re-building of social cohesion. His experience and energy as Justice and Environment Secretary suggests he would provide thoughtful yet decisive leadership.

To address the grievances and resentment that threaten to consume the country, Britain needs a chancellor who will support Gove’s ambition, not thwart it. Rory Stewart has the enthusiasm and seriousness. Like Gove, he is interested in ideas rather than slogans or party political posturing. Stewart knows that the UK economy needs to serve communities and regions.

Gove and Stewart are committed to a conservatism that puts people, place and planet before profit. Their support for democracy and ecology can help to renew both party and country. A Gove-Stewart ticket offers a politics of hope and healing.


Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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