Rishi Sunak is right about one thing: this is no time for “fairytales”. Indeed, if ever there was a moment for the Conservative Party to confront the harsh facts of its predicament, and the full extent of the government’s present detachment from reality, this is it.
Instead, in many different ways, and to different degrees, senior Tories are collectively deepening their delusions, evading the truth, and huddling in a Hobbit hole of craven deception. Were the Brothers Grimm themselves presented with this festival of comforting fictions, they might indeed ask: wow, what have these guys been smoking?
First, let’s address the subject which – amazingly – the 11 contenders to succeed Boris Johnson (with more expected to join their number) have barely addressed: namely, the slow-motion disaster of public ethics that forced this contest in the first place. So far, Penny Mordaunt has made some mention of “character” and “values”; Tom Tugendhat pledges a “fresh start” rooted in the ethos of service. You hear the occasional mention of “integrity”, which is nice.
Imagine, though, an uninitiated spectator, coming to the whole sordid business fresh this weekend, and observing the opening salvoes of the leadership battle. Not for a second would they have guessed that the outgoing prime minister had been driven from office by a saga of lies, rule-breaking, indifference to law, unanswered allegations of sexual harassment, and a sleazy presumption of impunity at the apex of government.
Where is the national-leader-in-waiting willing to say, for example, that (at minimum) the Ministerial Code should now be put on a statutory footing and that the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests – post vacant, remember – be given the right to initiate their own inquiries? Which of the 11 will declare that the time has come to give greater powers to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme that investigates bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct in Parliament, and to allow it to pursue allegations made by third parties and not only by alleged victims themselves?
Which, indeed, of these senior Conservatives will have the grace, dignity and confidence to preface their pitch for power by saying: “Sorry”? The absence of contrition and reflection from Johnson’s speech in Downing Street on Thursday was scarcely surprising. But you might have thought that one of his prospective successors would do the job for him, by issuing an apology to the nation for partygate and all that it symbolised: but, thus far, there is no sign of that whatsoever.
It does not help, perhaps, that the present frontrunner, Sunak, was himself fined for Covid rule-breaking, and was almost forced to resign as chancellor in April by controversy over his family’s tax affairs. If the man in pole position is reluctant to address the ethical elephant in the room, then why should anyone else? Worse: one wonders if they all truly realise how shabby the government now looks; whether they have grown so used to the sleaze and the stink clinging to the Tory tribe that they barely notice it any more.
Instead, we have Fairytale Number Two: that the principal answer to the Conservative Party’s travails is manifestly, self-evidently and without question, tax cuts. As I wrote four weeks ago, this really is a doozy of a delusion – a collective stampede back to the Tory comfort zone to postpone or to avoid entirely the necessary confrontation with the more painful and deeper-seated aspects of the party’s ongoing nervous collapse.
That the tax burden is very high is undeniable; though, in the light of that big, once-in-a-century pandemic business a few, more alert Tories may recall, it is also not terribly surprising. Yes, the Johnson government lacked anything remotely worthy to be described as a coherent economic strategy – the principal charge of Sunak’s ferocious resignation letter on Tuesday. And yes, this matters very much in the midst of an increasingly painful cost-of-living crisis.
But it is a crazed non sequitur to conclude that what the party now needs is a reckless contest to see who can offer the most macho tax cuts. With the exception of Sunak, who remains a fiscal conservative, insistent that such measures must be credibly funded, they are all at it.
Most embarrassing of all is the spectacle of Sajid Javid who, as health secretary, pressed for the Health and Social Care Levy, national insurance hikes which should provide an extra £12 billion a year for what were then the public services in his care, arguing with no less vigour for the levy to be ditched now that he is the former health secretary.
At least Jeremy Hunt, who held the same office for six years, has not followed Javid down that particular path. But he would still slash corporation tax and business rates (he also, mysteriously, nominated Esther McVey as his candidate to be deputy PM: Sarah Palin to his John McCain, for those who remember the 2008 US presidential election).
In today’s Daily Telegraph, Liz Truss, announcing her candidacy, writes that she would start cutting taxes “from day one”. Day one? Before she even hangs her portraits of Margaret Thatcher and Violet Kray behind her new desk? Before her first intelligence briefings? Before she says hello to the Number 10 staff, and promises, albeit under pressure, not to phase out Larry the cat as an “efficiency saving”? It’s that urgent to cut taxes?
And speaking of “efficiency savings”: it’s good to have them back. For as long as I have been writing about politics, they have been a reassuring presence, a dependable sign that a politician has no real idea how to fund a tax cut or a spending increase.
The other option – much in evidence in yesterday’s media round – is, of course, “growth”. You can, it is true, pay for anything out of economic growth. What you cannot do is simply order it up like a pizza or a fridge full of wine.
Keeping tax cuts in the headlines is certainly a form of a psychological deflection, postponing the moment when the party will have to address the deeper difficulties of collective identity, purpose and ethical character with which it is afflicted. It is also a means of isolating Sunak, who is not only opposed to unfunded measures, but also – much against his deepest instincts – presided as chancellor over £400 billion of Covid spending.
He fought against many features of this bonanza, principally the repeated extension of the various relief schemes, and argued relentlessly for lockdowns to be lifted so that the economy could be switched back on as soon as humanly possible. There were moments during the pandemic when he was the lone Thatcherite amid crypto-Keynesian converts.
No matter: Sunak’s reward has been to be labelled a “much lamented socialist chancellor” by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the candidate “offering a big state, high tax, socially democratic vision” by Steve Baker (who dropped out of the race to support Suella Braverman). There is a respectable argument against Sunak’s caution and the fixity of his distaste for public borrowing. But the accusations levelled by Rees-Mogg, Baker and others reflect a broader (and broadening) rhetorical infantilism in this race.
No less childish is Fairytale Number Three, spelt out to me by one of the contenders yesterday. As they put it: “You campaign one way to win the leadership contest and get the job. Butter up the MPs and the members, press the right buttons. And then, once you’re in Number 10, you reveal your real hand, and your offer to the public for the next general election.”
As the Iron Lady would have replied: No. No. No. That’s not how you do it, not if you aspire to any form of statesmanship. For a start, the public are already watching, and much more so than usual; so the notion that the leadership race can be conveniently partitioned from the next general election campaign is extraordinarily naive.
More to the point: great political leaders do not draw such a distinction. Fundamentally, they say the same thing to their parties as they do to the nation. This is the difference between Keir Starmer who, after four successive general election defeats, won the Labour leadership in 2020 by promising the Corbynites that he wouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater”; and Tony Blair, who after the same number of electoral losses, told Labour in 1994 that it had to transform itself utterly and that if it didn’t want to do that, it should pick someone else as its leader.
Which brings us to Fairytale Number Four: I do wonder how many, if any of the candidates appreciate the sheer bigness of the moment now upon them. David Davis, who was defeated by David Cameron in the 2005 race but is not running this time, certainly does. “This is going to be one of the most unpredictable leadership elections in history,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge yesterday. “But it’s also one of the most important.”
To be fair, Mordaunt communicates a much-needed sense that the party needs to stop being a cult of personality and rediscover the virtues of team-work. Kemi Badenoch, the undoubted star of the first few days, has demonstrated an eloquence, energy and acuity of thought that have already won her the support of her former boss, Michael Gove. I disagree with much of what she says; but so what? There is no denying that, amid what Disraeli would have called “a range of exhausted volcanoes”, she is a fresh and formidable force in British politics.
Still: the first few days of this contest have been uninspiring, and suggest – so far at least – that the candidates are, in the main, fundamentally unequal to the challenge that faces party, government and nation alike. Usually, prospective leaders of parties in trouble promise to bring unity and (when they’re really desperate) to “start the healing”.
Truth to tell, what the Tories need right now is a bit more disunity – of the right kind. Under Johnson, they have been the real “blob”, bovine and quiescent, stripped of all dignity and honour as their swaggy-topped Caligula ran riot through the British system. The party was neutered by the purges of the Remainers in the second half of 2019, and then by the careful crafting of a new parliamentary party for the general election of that year.
Yes, there have been disagreements over Covid strategy, over the respective needs of Red and Blue Wall constituencies, between those willing to break international law in the name of a pure Brexit and those less certain that a major G7 democracy should behave in such a fashion. But Johnson reduced his party to a gang of entitled sycophants sitting atop a hefty Commons majority. His regime self-destructed, but not because of any deep policy division. Its fundamental lack of decency, indifference to the rules and pathological tendency to lie simply became unsustainable and indefensible – though many, including several of the leadership candidates, tried repeatedly to sustain and defend it until the eleventh hour.
What we actually need of the candidates now is some serious policy disagreement: not a debate about how many tax cuts can dance on the head of a pin, or the poisonous smear campaigns that are already well underway and resemble nothing so much as the “rat-fucking” covert ops of the Watergate era. It would be good – and I’m just spitballing now – to hear what the contenders really think about how to achieve net zero carbon emissions (if indeed they care); what they propose to do about the ferocious inequalities that are the flipside of globalisation; how they intend to deal with longevity and the changing relationship between the generations; how they see the shifting geopolitical map and the prospective roles of Russia, China and the UK itself within it; and how they intend to turn the present cesspit of British politics into a public square of which a serious nation can be proud.
I have a hunch that the lack of creative and intellectual ambition in the leadership race so far is connected to Fairytale Number Five: one that is not confined to the Tory stockade but has a much wider reach. According to this myth, the eventual departure of Johnson will bring to an end, once and for all, a terrible episode in British government: a premiership that was essentially a grand experiment by a rogue narcissist uninterested in the conventions of democracy, steeped in the techniques of entertainment, always putting personality before policy, and impunity before responsibility.
When Johnson is gone – this particular fairytale continues – the pendulum will swing back, normal business will be restored, and the arc of history will resume its slow bend towards general niceness.
But, if the last decade has a principal lesson, it is that there is no pendulum; there is no arc; only human agency and what people choose or choose not to do with it. There was indeed a way of governing that arose after the Cold War ended; according to which, the great industrialised democracies of the world would preside over what became known as globalisation in a discreet coalition with big corporations and big money. To sweeten the deal, business would commit itself to the mostly meaningless rhetoric of ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria.
That way of doing things died in 2016. In truth, much of its tissue was necrotic after the financial crash. But it has been finished off by the effectiveness with which populists responded to its failings; by social media and culture wars; and by the rise of anti-globalist nationalism. And it isn’t coming back, ever.
To be clear: there may indeed be a better, fairer, post-populist, future-facing way of doing things than the way embodied by Trump, Johnson, Orban and the rest of them. But the old, post-1989 order is no more likely to make a comeback than is the Soviet Union or British Leyland.
Why bother with all this right now? Because it is the essential backdrop to what looks like a slightly demented soap opera involving 11 (or more) characters of – let us say – varying quality. It matters hugely who the next prime minister of this country is. The UK is still the sixth wealthiest nation in the world, measured by GDP. It is still a nuclear power and a significant player in global security and intelligence. Its “soft power” remains formidable. The winner of this race will be in charge of all this. It shouldn’t be necessary to point this out. But it is.
Johnson has been a ghastly prime minister but he is as much a symptom as a cause of the problems this country faces. It is convenient now to forget how many elections he won, and the fact that his opportunist antennae sensed the way the wind was blowing on Brexit. But he was only the terrible helmsman. He did not build the cruiseliner whose captaincy he was handed.
What will he do now? He was a household name long before he became prime minister and the chances of him fading from national life are less than zero. His fall was Nixonian rather than Thatcheresque: it was driven by disgrace rather than operatic policy disputes. All the same, he will stick around in some way, as Thatcher did, and Nixon could not.
In which context, I am reminded of Alan Clark’s diary entry for 22 November 1990, the day that she fell: “What happens when she starts to be ‘missed’, and the rose-tinted spectacles are found in everyone’s breast pocket?” Hard as it may be to believe now, there will come a time when Johnson is missed in similar fashion. It will be said that there is a Boris-shaped hole in public life.
Already, his supporters at the Mail and the Telegraph are confecting betrayal narratives that cast Johnson as the Gulliver restrained by Lilliputians; by a conspiracy of Remainers, the BBC, the Blairites, the civil service… by anyone, really, who refused to acknowledge his greatness and colluded in his tragic downfall. “WHAT THE HELL HAVE THEY DONE?” raged the Mail on its front page. This did not feel like a moment of closure.
During the pandemic, Johnson used to brood on the fate of Churchill in 1945 – and the fact that the war leader’s electoral reward for victory in the conflict was to be ousted from office. But, then again, he would reflect, Churchill came back in 1951 – didn’t he?
Look at what the soon-to-be-former PM wrote in his bestselling biography of his hero: “Churchill paid a price for his unique status – as a national figure who transcended party… A lesser man would have packed it in, and gone off to Chartwell to paint. Not Churchill. He never gave up; he never gave in.”
Them’s the breaks, as Johnson said on Thursday. And – God knows – he broke enough, in a very short space of time. I wonder what he will break next.