I have a confession to make: I am a Conservative party entryist. True, I have voted for the Tories most of my adult life so it is my natural political home but I never joined, not even when once I was a candidate for the local council elections (a no-hope candidacy in Oxford, a city that has elected just one Tory councillor since the 1980s).
My reason for staying aloof was that as a working journalist I thought I shouldn’t compromise my independence by joining any party, but last autumn I took the plunge and signed up. I did so because, as everyone knew, there was a leadership contest coming; and now it is upon us and there is hard thinking to be done.
No one seems to have a good word for the way the Tories are conducting the contest; it is variously described as un-democratic (because only party members get a vote), too private (only Tory MPs are hearing the arguments from the candidates) and too sprawling (because there are too many candidates). On top of all this, it is said, those who will get a vote – the 124,000 Tory party members – are hopelessly unrepresentative of the country at large, being too old, too male and too white. Furthermore, it is claimed, the party has in recent months been infiltrated by hordes of mad Ukipper entryists intent upon inflicting the hardest of hard Brexits on the country.
On this last point, at least, I can exonerate myself. At the referendum I was undecided even at the point of entering the polling station but then, in what I thought of as a “head over heart” decision, I voted to Remain. I would not do so again; the Brexit negotiations have been a steep learning curve for anyone who harboured fond illusions about the true nature of the EU.
The assertion endlessly repeated by Remainers that “people did not know what they voted for” is an argument that cuts both ways. Those of us who voted Remain were just as much in the dark about what that meant for the future as were Leavers. The one great benefit I see having come from the referendum is that it has helped clarify the realities of national life: like sunlight at a low angle that suddenly brings the landscape into high relief, Brexit has brought definition.
Tories will reap the Brexit whirlwind
We now know, for instance, that Parliament – Lords and Commons both – are overwhelmingly Remainers and have acted on their beliefs. Mrs May’s tragic deficiency of basic political skills combined with the Establishment’s Remain bias has created the current impasse. It has also illuminated a fundamental division between those – like George Osborne and Michael Heseltine – who think the whole issue is about economics (“Britain plc”) and those who believe that the core argument is about democracy itself.
It might be objected that the latter point of view is essentially romantic and impractical, but it is many Remainer’s inability to couch their argument in terms anything other than GDP that is so depressing and reveals their dismal materialist myopia. Are we really supposed to decide the future of our politics according to whether we might potentially lose a fraction of national income?
It is said that the chaos in Parliament has forced people to recognise the consequences of the vote to leave and this is used as an argument to bolster the case for a second referendum. I disagree. The lesson I have drawn from following the negotiations over the past two and a half years is that the Eurosceptic charge – that the EU is an embryonic federal superstate – is exactly right. True to its French-inspired origins it is dirigiste in a way that makes it incompatible with any notion of a self-governing nation state. As the Brexiteers always maintained, the argument was, and still is, about what kind of democracy we want to live in.
On a lighter note Brexit has provided endless diversion because of its unmatched ability to provoke a kind of political hysteria. The Economist magazine has been particularly prone to these disabling anxiety attacks. A recent edition predicted that Brexit was set to blow up the entire British constitution, overturning centuries of hard-won compromise and workable tradition.
After setting out this dire prospect, it roundly condemned Tory Party members because of their unfashionable attitudes. The magazine sneeringly reported that a majority back the re-introduction of the death penalty and that (shock horror!) “84% believe schools should teach children to obey authority”. A sentiment I imagine is hardly unique to Tories and leaves one wondering what better alternative The Economist has in mind.
What if Remain had won?
It’s true that Tory party members tend to be older people but there is no shame in that; on the contrary selecting a person to become Prime Minister is arguably much better left to those of mature years. Who, as they age, does not think they have a better measure of life? Which of us does not think they have learned valuable lessons along the way and that our judgement has improved as a result?
Why should it be imagined that younger people, who inevitably know less than their elders, are better equipped to decide the country’s future? It is only in the modern era, and particularly in western countries, that we have come to flatter and fawn over the young, not because of their shining hair, good teeth and clear skin (all very desirable) but because they supposedly have insights denied to the old.
When the current parade of candidates is winnowed down to two, it will be to this mature electorate that they must appeal. From what I know of my fellow Tories, they are likely to discharge their duty conscientiously. The Tory tribe – still to an extent loyal to that conventional trinity, Faith, Flag and Family – will relish the opportunity to have their say and my guess is that as decision-day draws near minds will be concentrated and the candidates’ abilities and personalities weighed in the balance. This will not necessarily be to the current front-runners’ advantage.
Confessions of a Tory entryist
Boris Johnson’s greatest attribute is surely his contagious optimism; when all around are prophesying doom and accentuating the negative, Johnson’s blithe, carefree mien is a tonic. But is it a good look for an aspiring PM? Tories, by and large, cherish the idea of themselves as responsible types always looking out for the interests of the country; this low-key patriotism is bred in the bone and it is an attitude that might well check Boris’s progress.
I am just re-reading a biography of Johnson by a former Daily Telegraph colleague of his, Sonia Purnell. Called Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition it was published in 2012 so doesn’t cover his recent exploits; even so it is a compelling, and far from flattering, portrait of a politician on the make. Like Bill Clinton in his pomp, Boris is the Great Seducer; his notorious philandering is a matter now of public record – the question is will he seduce the Party?
I think Johnson is untrustworthy and it seems that many of his fellow MPs think so too. For those in the “anyone but Boris” camp, the name of the game is to prevent him reaching the run-off with the membership because once he gets to that point he’d win.
The new leader has to be a convinced (and convincing) Leaver, so for me, the most problematic contest would be Johnson vs Jeremy Hunt because Hunt is a Remainer by instinct. I’m hoping Michael Gove can overcome the cocaine revelation because he’s the most creative politician the party has; he’s whip-smart, a true believer in Brexit, and the Leaver that Remainers would find easiest to live with.
Whether he, or indeed any of the other candidates, could actually deliver Brexit is far from certain; any new leader inherits the same problems that defeated May, so their success or failure will be determined by their ability to unite and then lead the party and do deals. And if that’s the job description, Boris has already ruled himself out.