Handicapping the Tories

John O'Sullivan

Tomorrow (Tuesday) will see the second round of voting in the U.K.’s Tory leadership election and the acceleration of political realignment in the Tory party and the wider political world. Until now the field of candidates has been crowded by too many candidates who had no realistic prospect of winning for us to draw sensible conclusions about the way a wounded Tory party might seek to escape the deep political trouble it’s in. When I was asked by the website Conservative Home to contribute to a symposium before the first round of voting here, I began:

My main impression of the Conservative leadership race so far is of a repertory theatre that has advertised the wrong play: a small audience has turned up for a serious drama but a very large cast of actors is performing a light farce . . .

. . . one in which, furthermore, they all had trouble in coming up with good lines. That was understandable on Brexit, where, as Paul Goodman (ConHome’s editor) has explained, the Tory party is faced with the fearsome difficulty of untangling its own Rubik’s Cube: The Tories cannot win a general election without delivering Brexit, but they cannot deliver Brexit without winning a general election.

Commentators generally use this paradox against Boris Johnson, who is both the most popular candidate and seemingly a hard Brexiteer. They instruct Boris to explain how he will be able to deliver Brexit against a hostile Commons majority. Fair enough. But this conundrum cuts both ways. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt or any other Leaver and/or soft Brexiteer must also explain how he will unify the Conservative party on a program of delivering an amended May deal that most Tory MPs and almost all Tory activists have already resoundingly rejected.

My own view is that both questions can be answered only in retrospect, since either result will probably be achieved by deception and strong whipping, among other means. Whoever becomes Tory leader will at first take MPs on a magical mystery tour to keep the party together while unraveling the Rubik’s Cube or, to change the metaphor, while cutting the Gordian Knot (i.e., proroguing Parliament beyond October 31 so that Brexit occurs automatically in existing law).

It’s not certain that the new leader will succeed in either delivering Brexit or winning an election. But which aim he prioritizes, and how he tries to achieve it will be determined partly by who he is and by how his defeated rivals have performed in the race. Well, the first round of voting occurred last Thursday, and Boris Johnson emerged well ahead of the other candidates with 114 votes to Jeremy Hunt’s 43, Michael Gove’s 37, Dominic Raab’s 27, Sajid Javid’s 23, Matthew Hancock’s 20, and Rory Stewart’s 19, with three candidates being eliminated from the second round: Andrea Leadsom with eleven, Mark Harper with ten, and Esther McVey with nine.

Seven of these candidates are cabinet ministers, two are former cabinet ministers, and one is a former chief whip. This was a race of equals, with no real outsiders, which makes its lopsided result all the more decisive. Barring some last-minute revelation or a lightning-like catastrophe, Boris Johnson will be the next leader of the Tory party.

A significant percentage of Tory MPs — most but not all passionate Remainers — dislike this possibility and will now strive to hem him in by extracting promises of his good behavior in future: namely, that he will oppose a no-deal Brexit. That explains the demands from his rivals and the media that he must take part in every candidates’ debate between now and Doomsday, in which they will try to pin him down on this. Restricting his freedom of action as leader is not their only aim, however; they also hope desperately that he’ll make some fearful election-losing gaffe. And in their reports he probably will.

Now, what can we learn from the situation and behavior of all the other candidates (not excluding those who were eliminated in the first round)? I am assigning each of the candidates to a category that describes them not in left–right ideological terms, nor mainly as Leavers or Remainers, but as representing political identities of a different kind. I then ask what their performance tells us about how the Tories (and in some cases the media) are treating that identity. Here is my own list:

The Commonsense Candidate. That would be Mark Harper, a former chief whip and moderate man of government with sensible center–right views, generally liked (as much as a former chief whip can be) by most Tory MPs. A commonsense candidate should and would usually do well in an essentially cautious status quo party such as the Tories. But Harper got only ten votes and was eliminated in the first round. My explanation is that almost all the other candidates were talking up common sense in order to soften their support for whatever risky Brexit they were offering. He needed a unique selling proposition that would have differentiated himself from them. And he never developed one. Out goes Mark.

The Candidate of the Future. Matthew Hancock, the health secretary, won only 20 votes because he had the wrong unique selling proposition. He presented himself as the kind of modern liberal technocrat—tech-savvy, modernizing, and offering the policies of tomorrow—who’s losing votes all over Europe. He might do well in the 2035 election, but the voters want politicians who will solve the problems of today. Alas, these problems are often the result of the solutions of tomorrow that were offered yesterday. Hancock ruefully conceded as much in a Times article, published today, in which he withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Boris for the next round. He is now a Man of Tomorrow Emeritus—E meaning he’s gone and meritus he deserved it. It’s quite a crowded field.

The Woman Candidate. Two women candidates, Andrea Leadsom, and Esther McVey, were sent off the field in the first round. It’s a mark of the overriding power of ideology today, especially in the media, that there’s been so little lamentation over their exclusion. If they had not been Leavers, their combined total of 20 votes would have been denounced as a shameful confession of Tory misogyny. As it is, their departure was mentioned almost in passing.

What makes it more worrying is that, judged by the criteria of ability and achievement, McVey and Leadsom were stronger than some of those who survived into the final seven. Leadsom has been a decently effective leader of the House under an unsympathetic prime minister, and she stood her ground against Speaker Bercow more effectively than anyone else in the House. She is a forceful debater, and she can mount a strong case for Tory economics. Being a woman used to give you extra marks in the game of positive discrimination, but that applies only if you’re a progressive, it seems, and May has taken the shine off that argument anyway.

The Blue-Collar Conservative Candidate. McVey has strong credentials as a northern populist Tory as well as a woman (where, contra left-feminists, they are indisputable). She is a feisty performer who saw off BBC interviewer Andrew Marr very effectively on his Sunday show by knowing more than he did on topics he had chosen. She has held a major departmental portfolio. She resigned early and rightly from May’s cabinet over Brexit. And she was the only candidate bold enough to represent the majority opinion of Tory activists — that a No Deal Brexit is the best available policy rather than just a negotiating tool. She can even make a good case for it — which will be important if ministers have to do just that when the EU flatly refuses to hold further negotiations on the withdrawal agreement.

Her departure also suggests, more disturbingly, that most Tories have failed to grasp the nature of their peril. It’s not only or even mainly the loss of Remainers over Brexit, as too many assume. It’s the changing class basis of political parties. All over the Western world conservative parties are losing highly educated voters. That loss may be moderated; it’s unlikely to be reversed for a long time. But it can be compensated by the gain of blue-collar votes through appeals to them on a blend of patriotism, common sense, and a change in public spending priorities.

McVey represented the strategy of winning northern workers in part because she seemed to embody it. McVey claims that Boris has now agreed to support her agenda in return for her supporting his leadership bid. It’s a fair exchange if both sides deliver something real. He would be well advised to give her a prominent role in the next government — and in the next election campaign — but she needs to put some real meat on the otherwise whitened bones of her blue-collar conservatism concept.

The Establishment Candidates. These are, of course, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, and Home Secretary Sajid Javid — all of them men of office and responsibility, and that is crippling them.

They are all within a relatively short distance from each other but very far behind Boris Johnson. They are all anxious to win the Tory faithful without offending the media or the establishment too seriously. Three of them are careful to support Brexit only if it can be done through a deal with Brussels, but they can never explain how they would get such a deal. (Raab would back no deal.) And they go round and round in circles.

But all of them suffer from the same problem: Even when we know they differ strongly, as on Brexit, they say almost identical things. One needs an Enigma machine to break this Tory code. That’s hardly conducive to what each of them needs badly: a bold dramatic policy shift that suddenly propels one of them to the fore. What is happening instead is a fog of verbal obfuscation in televised debates between the candidates in which a kind of soft, misty, insubstantial Brexit was emerging as the establishment consensus minus Raab.

Until the last few days, therefore, it looked as if the establishment front-runner, Jeremy Hunt, would end up as the Not-Boris candidate in the Round Britain debates before the Tory rank and file. That’s almost certainly still correct. But a wild card has suddenly been thrown onto the table.

The Media Candidate. Rory Stewart just managed to scrape into the second round with 19 votes. He has since been acting as a kind of mobile guerrilla Remainer candidate, dazzling all with a walkabout campaign as the man who will speak the hard truth about Brexit even if his Tory voters don’t want to hear it and his rival candidates lack the courage to tell them. Unlike his timid establishment rivals, he has no qualms about striking bold attitudes and saying outrageous things. He seems Fresh! Clean! Invigorating!

Is this real? Well, yes, and not only real but quite familiar to anyone who has followed American politics. Recent elections have seen the rise of the Media Candidate — that is, the candidate who supports policies anathema to his own party’s rank-and-file but highly acceptable to the media reporters and columnists who cover him.

There have probably always been Media Candidates, but the first one to swim into my vision appeared in 1980 in the U.S., in the person of Representative John Anderson. Mr. Anderson was a Republican who found Ronald Reagan too extreme but could not vote for the failed Jimmy Carter either. For that summer he was the darling of the talk shows — “costume jewelry” for Manhattan’s liberal Republican set, as one wag said at the time — and he got six percent of the vote. There have been many imitators since, but the candidate who mastered this technique better than anyone else was “Maverick John” McCain, who rode it almost to the White House.

The key to understanding the media candidate is that he throws overboard his party’s policies and outrages its grass-roots supporters on the basis of two calculations:

Either he has no hope or intention of winning the election and therefore feels perfectly free to annoy and alienate the voters in order to make himself known nationally, or he is really seeking the support of another set of voters entirely, usually the reporters who will be covering him for the next few decades. Those voters generally dislike conservative loyalists — feel a snobbish contempt for them, indeed — and those feelings are maximized in the case of the U.K.’s Brexit supporters. Naturally, reporters don’t mind when Mr. Stewart declares he won’t say the things that ordinary Tories want to hear, since the reporters don’t want to hear them or anything like them.

Stewart has waged this guerrilla campaign ingeniously by sending out tweets about where he’ll turn up next, wandering off without apparent purpose, fielding questions from passers-by as he goes, and seeming quite indifferent to the media trailing in his wake. He gets great reviews.

For me, Stewart’s walkabout is wonderfully reminiscent of the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels, wherein a movie director anxious for art’s sake to experience poverty at first hand dresses as a hobo and trudges miserably along the highway — with a caravan containing a chef, a publicist, and Veronica Lake traveling slowly 20 yards behind him. Reality intrudes when, through a chapter of accidents, the director finds himself wrongfully convicted, anonymously imprisoned, and thought dead.

Reality intruded into Stewart’s campaign when a Daily Telegraph poll showed that a Tory party led by him would receive 19 per cent of the popular vote and a mere 51 seats in Parliament (but perhaps a landslide in the parliamentary press galley). It seems to have departed again, however, since Mr. Stewart is now interpreting his 19 votes in the leadership election as a mandate to hold another Parliament across the road from the Palace of Westminster if a Leaver prime minister takes Britain out of the EU by undemocratic methods. He predicts he and Boris will be the last men standing in the battle before the grass roots. And he claims to have the momentum to win.

All this is an entertaining theatre of the absurd, and it has made Stewart a permanent fixture in national and Tory politics. Though it probably won’t win over enough Tory MPs to threaten either Boris or Hunt — they will be the final two before Boris’s ultimate victory — it has deadly serious purposes for the future. In the short term, it hopes to put the maximum pressure on Boris Johnson to back a Brexit not very different from May’s spavined compromise. (Indeed, May has let it be known she supports Stewart — not necessarily helping him.) In the long term, Stewart’s walkabout is designed to divide the Tories indefinitely, to entrench the power of Remainers in their ranks, and to ensure that they never become a party fully dedicated to maintaining Brexit and resisting its future repeal.

Neither purpose can be entirely discounted. Boris will be susceptible to pressure in the few months after he becomes leader, and both Leavers and Remainers have expressed fears or hopes that Boris is so unreliable that he will turn on his current supporters and find some way to betray them and Brexit when its difficulties become apparent. Now, I don’t buy this picture of Boris nor the predictions, shaped by a Remain media, of the near-impossible difficulties of Brexit. But many Tory MPs either believe both or, to be more precise, hope that they’re true. They might gradually drift back towards the delusion Stewart embodies, that they can risk the softest of soft Brexits without electoral catastrophe.

Three factors argue not.

The first is that opinion polls since the European elections have not shown the drift-back of voters from the Brexit party to the Tories that many predicted. One poll in the last few days shows a modest recovery of the Tories, but Farage’s party still remains three points ahead on 23 percent. A still more recent poll puts the Brexit party at 26 percent and the Tories in the mid-teens, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them. And those results were recorded after more than a week of largely favorable news about the Tory leadership battle. As the Telegraph poll mentioned above showed, the Tories would lose an election heavily under any leader other than Boris.

Second, the Tory collapse occurred after May broke her promise that Britain would leave the EU on March 31. Some Tories seem to be relying on the passage of time and the poor memories of voters to dispel their hostility. But why would those who have since switched to the Brexit party now simply shrug and conclude of Brexit after all this delay and electoral upheaval: “Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”? What seems to be happening instead is that their hatred of their old party — no kinder word seems right — is growing with every new excuse and evasion.

And, finally, there is the Farage factor. If nothing else, the threat he poses will keep Boris faithful to a real Brexit. He is the ticket to a Tory victory if he offers an electoral deal to Boris. And he is the engineer of his certain defeat if he decides to run Brexit-party candidates in every seat. He can even determine the Leave–Remain balance in Parliament and among Tory MPs by his selection of seats to fight.

If he were to run candidates against all Tories except those who have consistently opposed May’s deal, as he has promised in the past, he would ensure that the next Tory parliamentary contingent would be significantly more Leave than Remain. And if the Brexit party were to win all or most of the 70 Labour seats with Leave sympathies in northern England thought to be at risk, he would add another batch of Leavers to those on the Tory benches. Farage doesn’t need an electoral deal for that, but an electoral deal with Boris would offer both men the prospect of much bigger gains.

In short, Farage can offer Boris another five years in power in return for a hard Brexit. It’s unlikely that Stewart, May, and the three (of four) establishment candidates can match that prospect or anything like it, and they seemed determined to resist to the finish. That’s the kind of situation that leads to the breakup of existing parties and their realignment on different lines. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills.”

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