Stories of magic to comfort an unrepresentative electorate
Charles Parselle reflects on the Conservative Party's leadership contest. All the candidates have to make undeliverable Brexit promises and believe in some sort of magic. But on the other side of the globe we can look at the brave stand that the people of Hong Kong are making for freedom and democracy. Through our common humanity, we can celebrate that these good and courageous people have taken up the causes of decency and liberty which our own political class seems incapable of supporting. Our former colonial subjects show us what is important.
If Donald Trump were in the Tory leadership contest, he would have a nickname for each rival, to demean them. One imagines him writing his list: Po-boy Johnson, Squinty Hunt, Little Rory (Stewart), Waffen McVey, Knifer Raab, Snorter Gove, Child Hancock, Wrinkles Leadsom, Jabba Javid. Such insults work for Trump but they are not the British way. Even so, the press has many harsh words to describe the contenders.
They have one appalling thing in common – all are hatchlings from the serpent’s egg, that is to say, all were appointed to the Cabinet by Theresa May, though some held ministerial positions in the Cameron government. Their combined experience is limited. Johnson first entered Parliament in 2001 before departing to become Mayor of London 2008-2016, Hunt and Gove have been MPs since 2005, but the remaining seven only entered Parliament in 2010. Individually and collectively, they are inexperienced.
The Conservative party in the Commons numbers 313, including many experienced MPs exemplifying the good characteristics of leadership. None of those experienced MPs are contenders, because no moderate, pragmatic person embodying traditional Tory value can hope to succeed in a leadership contest to be decided by the tiny, aging, reactionary and increasingly racist party membership. The Tories have slid far to the right during their 40-year internal Brexit battle that now has engulfed the entire country; no one occupying the centre can hope to command attention.
Each of the contenders have laid out their stalls filled with much the same toxic goods. Jeremy Hunt, with ponderous vacuity and imitating Trump, wants “Britain to walk tall again.” Michael Gove: “With Brexit, this can be the best country in the world.” As for cocaine: “I made a mistake.” Dominic Raab: “We’ve been humiliated as a country.” And: “We need a buccaneering approach to free trade.” Matt Hancock described his offering as “an emotionally-charged platform to improve lives, rooted in objective fact.” No one asked him to explain. And (with narrowed eyes): “If you could choose a time to be alive, wouldn’t you choose now?” No one bothered to answer.
McVey and Leadsom were eliminated in the first round of Tory MP voting.
The next round will probably end the hopes of Stewart and Javid, while Hancock already pulled out. All promise to ‘deliver’ Brexit to a grateful nation, all suggest that they possess the personal qualities lacking in the outgoing PM, all try to exude the confidence that they have to magic to deliver the result that three wasted years have not achieved. They are ‘all in denial,, all in dreamland’ writes Polly Toynbee.
George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, believes that anyone wanting the job should have a course of therapy first. Wanting the job should be a disqualification for it. Good leadership is ‘fairness and objectivity, desire to serve others, lack of interest in fame and attention, and resistance to untruth or impossible promise,’ none of which is on display. In contrast, poor leadership is marked by ‘tendency to manipulate, willingness to lie and deceive, lack of remorse or sensitivity, desire for admiration, attention and prestige,’ all of which the Tory contenders are displaying as if they were virtues.
Johnson is far ahead, the presumptive nominee. Before being arrested and jailed for corruption, the former Governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, boasted: “I can’t lose this race unless I’m found in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.” Johnson is in the process of divorcing his wife of many years, but no doubt steering well clear of live boys and dead girls.
The opinion writers have spent most of their descriptive energy on Johnson’s candidacy. Polly Toynbee writes of him as ‘rotten to the core...A man without qualities, devoid of public spirit or regard for anyone but himself, consumed by lifelong ambition, needy for acclaim and irritable when it’s denied, willing to swing dangerously in any direction to be loved, a man to shame the country as its figurehead…Barely a word he spoke was true, trustworthy or even faintly plausible.”
Rafael Behr rose to commanding heights in describing our likely next Prime Minister as a man of “lying incompetence, idleness, philandering self-obsession and intellectual vacuity,” Yet 114 MPs voted for Johnson in the first round. He only needs 42 more votes to have half of the Tory MPs, meaning he is certain to be in the run-off, and nearly certain to be the next Prime Minister.
This kind of language is the new normal. It would not have been normal at any time in the past 200 years. Yet Tory woes will not turn into Labour wins, because Jeremy Corbyn remains possibly the only man in the Labour party capable of losing an electoral contest to the broken and corrupted Tories.
Yet we British have something to be proud of right now, namely the intensely brave and determined stand taken by the people of Hong Kong against the totalitarian impulses of Beijing. This inspiring spectacle is a far cry from the sorry spectacle of Tory leadership contenders trying to out-promise each other by vapidly promising sweeties and delicacies to the electorate, promises everyone knows they won’t keep.
What is happening today in both the Labour and Conservative parties are cause for shame and dismay. As we sink into the slime of our own making, we can take some satisfaction that others have taken up the causes of decency and liberty to which our own political class seems incapable. There are honourable exceptions but just as bad money drives out good, so fecklessness and braggadocio drives out reason and decency. That is why the ascendency of Boris Johnson is so harmful, though less harmful than Donald Trump’s stint in the White House, because Johnson will soon discover that his wordy charm will not work on the EU. What then is anyone’s guess, except it seems certain that Britain’s psychosis still has quite a way to run.
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