Boris or Bust?

Co-written by Jeff Tooze and Pete Sears – The following is our take on the upcoming Conservative Leadership election and its many candidates.

The Conservative Party has faced existential crises before.

Yet, be it the breakdown of unity caused by the the Corn Laws, Protectionism Vs Free Trade at the turn of the 20th Century, or our relationship with the European Union, the great splits of the Tory Party always follow the same broad theme:

Do we manage a Britain in decline? Or do we make a bold move to reverse course?

It is my view that the Tory Party has survived centuries as a dominant political force for  embracing the bold course, forging and then occupying a new age of political zeitgeist, based firmly on the principle of strengthening and upholding Britain and her institutions to face the challenges brought by sweeping changes from without. It will come as no surprise that both I and fellow contributor Pete Sears believe that Brexit is another of these bold moves that needs to be embraced by whomever succeeds Theresa May.

Yet with the Brexit Party’s huge success in the recent European Elections and an apparent fracturing of the two party system at hand, the Party itself faces the same dilemma: Go bold? or Go Home?

Is the bold course simply a ‘No Deal’, clean break exit? Or do they need to go as bold as Boris to survive? Here is the Tooze/Sears take on the candidates running for leadership.

The Non-starters:
Harper – Malthouse – Brady)

The Sears Take:

Who? Apart from Brady, I had barely heard of the others. As interesting as a rice sandwich.

The Tooze Take:

My esteemed colleague, as brief as always! Yet like Sears, I’m not only baffled and unimpressed by the content of these characters, but by the very thought process that has driven them to stand. For me they typify a fundamental problem with the Tory parliamentary mentality, one most ardently practised by May herself; namely, a complete detachment from reality and the sentiments of the electorate.

In a political zeitgeist where the ‘optics’ and charisma of leaders is captivating the voter’s attention, these people are apparently deluded enough to believe they stand a hope. If they are warped enough to think that, I cannot fathom how out of touch they are on the policy directions ordinary folk would wish them to take on Brexit, or any other issue you could care to mention.

First Furlongs:
 (Stewart – Hancock)

The Sears Take:

I am in much the same mind as Jeff on these two.

Hancock is a total nonstarter, poor public perception, atrocious performance in his campaign thus far, and of course political positions that are not going to cut the mustard. No-one wants a continuity May candidate, and Hancock would be that.

I think that Stewart represents that peculiar disconnect between the twittersphere and the real world. His odd social media performances will be going down as well as a salad at a David Lammy lunch, and his antics from smoking heroin to slagging off Tory positions in interviews with, there is little scope of him making anymore positive impact.   

The Tooze Take:

Indeed, I could hardly bring myself to categorise these two as runners at all. For me their effect on this race is much the same as those runners who cause a lot of fuss in the first furlong for all the wrong reasons, and are likely to be ‘destroyed’ at the end of the race for compassionate reasons.

Take Hancock first, whose pitch is “I’m a Remainer who will deliver Brexit and bring the party together”; yet can’t seem to deliver a stroopwafle to his face on breakfast television without causing an Ed Miliband ‘bacon sandwich’ style national embarrassment, or indeed can’t seem to bring together words into a coherent sentence on Newsnight without looking like ‘Blinky’ Ben Swain from that favourite ‘The Thick of It’ scene where ‘even the cameramen are laughing’.

Stewart however isn’t as embarrassing as he is telling. Let’s forget for a moment that this is the man who said on Radio 4 that 80% of the public supported Mays deal, and then admitted he simply made it up. That yes, this is the man who is trending on Twitter for popping up in random locations (mainly London) like an anaemic ‘Where’s Wally’ tribute act, proceeding to speak some obscure Middle Eastern dialect to random and often bewildered members of the public. Oh and of course, the man who is so woke he passed around an opium pipe at an Iranian wedding. No, all I need to disqualify Stewart from consideration despite some encouraging things he said about his love for sheep farmers and the British Army, is that the media outlets are fawning over him, and every Remainer and non-Tory voter I know likes him. If I didn’t believe so strongly that he was a proxy for the Govites to bash Boris while keeping Michael’s hands clean I would be asking spuriously ‘Who Funds You!?’

The Also Ran’s:
 (Hunt – Javid – Leadsom – Cleverly)

The Sears Take:

Perhaps I have been too harsh to label these guys as ‘also-ran’s’. There is name recognition with some of these, and support within the party – Hunt and Javid are 4th and 5th on current declared MP support. The issue for both of them is what would be perceived as a weak position on Brexit. Hunt’s flip-flopping on both No Deal and a 2nd Referendum will sink him quite quickly; and I suspect that this is one election too early for the Saj, who has also started his campaign very sluggishly.

Leadsom’s stock had risen consistently since the referendum, however whilst seen as a Brexit Hardliner, her consistent support for May’s WAB except at the last of asking will be hard to defend once campaigning is underway.

Cleverly is a clean skin in terms of him not being in cabinet during this national humiliation. However it is hard to see him getting to the final two, let alone convincing the membership of his merits to run the country.

The Tooze Take:

Unlike Sears, I’m pretty confident at labelling these names together in the midfield pack. If Brexit were not the issue of the day, I would put pretty short odds on one of them getting into the final two. However, all have been tainted by their previous record and association with May’s mishandling of Brexit to greater or lesser extent.

Hunt strikes me as the most risk averse candidate in the field. How else could he have stayed at Health for so long? It is the only motivation as a former Remainer, that he has for supporting Brexit. Thus, given recent comments on WTO exit, his commitment to delivering it meaningfully is about is genuine as a Louis Vuitton belt being flogged on the beach-side in Tenerife.

Leadsom made the mistake of walking away too late. It will be hard to play her resignation at the eleventh hour as anything other than opportunist when she supported the same deal on the previous three occasions.

Cleverly is not only too green, like Icarus he has failed to fly that perfect distance between the rising tides of a clean Brexit and the destructive inferno of the May Withdrawal Agreement. He got too close defending her, his wings have melted, and he is currently sinking beneath the waves of Euro-scepticism that others will ride the crest of.

Like Sears, I think Javid is before his time. I like his stance on extra policing, his willingness to go at loggerheads with May and his increasingly convincing record on supporting Brexit in Cabinet. However, his name does not inspire much more than indifference on that issue, and it leaves him behind the main contenders in the attentions of the members and the MPs.

The Front Runners:
 (Johnson – Raab – Gove)

The Sears Take:

Still the biggest Beast in the Tory Jungle, and darling of the membership, this really is Johnson’s election to lose, and surely his last punt at taking charge of the country. I believe that Johnson is the only hope for the Conservative party to survive as a major electoral force. Despite backing May’s WAB at the third time of asking, Johnson is Teflon, and can ride the storm in a way that other candidates cannot. The biggest threats to Johnson are his own colleagues in parliament, who seem more scared of him being PM than the geriatric Marxist across the floor. Johnson will also have to ride an increasingly hostile media as he approaches his prize, should he ride that out, then the membership will install him with little fuss, and his dream of being a Churchillain figure will truly be put to the test.

Sadly, there was a time when I would have been cock-a-hoop to see Michael Gove running for the leadership, now it makes me marginally depressed. His performances since the referendum have seen him in effect become a Tory wet – whether it’s cheer-leading for the banning of plastic straws, to his shrieking about the horror of leaving without any agreement on October 31st. I have little faith of a Gove Premiership delivering the Tories from the entrenched Blairism it has been infested with since Cameron. Sadly he is a front runner because he represents the best chance to stop Boris, which it seems many Tory MPs want more than anything – shown by the fact he has already raced into the lead of Tory nominations. Whilst I do not think he can beat Boris in a head-to-head on the membership vote, if Boris is nobbled by MPs before that, it will take a herculean effort for any of the other candidates to take Michael Gove down.

I like Dom Raab, but I am a little surprised by his level of support – he makes the right noises on a range of issues, but when I see him interviewed it all comes across as a little awkward, a little stage managed, even a little staged. How he will avoid at least partial blame for his disaster seeing as he was a Brexit secretary I am curious to know, also his ‘be nice to each other’ pledge seems, like the rest of his campaign so far, contrived.

The Tooze Take:

Among the undisputed leaders of the pack, I am most conflicted about Dominic Raab. I hear that EU officials are most nervous about the prospect of a Raab premiership. At a glance I can understand why. An attractive, youthful, slick considered approach in public. An undoubtedly capable, calm and collected individual; a lawyer and ex-foreign office minister who has the temperament and poker-face for the standoff that is bound to come. He is also a undoubtedly committed Brexiteer. Unlike Leadsom, he resigned at the right time and on principle, when he knew he couldn’t support the draft agreement in November. His reasoning and caveats on why he supported MV3 are also the best I’ve heard. He also has an interesting record of promoting genuinely conservative low-tax domestic policies.

That said, Raab risks falling over his own feet. As Sears mentioned, the ‘pledge’ he has organised seems particularly Machiavellian in its omissions, and while I have sympathy for his comments on fanatical feminism, he needs to avoid such conversations if he is to break through the pack. If Raab can prove his mettle and consistency in the weeks to come, I would tip him as most likely to emerge leader, particularly if Boris is kept from the final two.

On Boris, both myself and Sears have little disagreement and no doubt that if he can make the final two, the membership will coronate him. He also has the backing of the most sound Tory MPs by some margin. However, despite my view that he might well be the Tory’s last throw of the dice if they are to regain enough mojo and charisma to face down both Farage and Corbyn, I can’t help but distrust his motives. Boris is nothing if not an opportunist, and sadly I feel his commitment to Brexit only extends as far as it being the opportunity he needs.

He has also, perhaps by dint of being the favourite, been exceptionally quiet. I think that despite the boost in support the farcical court cases and Remoaner tears will give Boris with the membership, he will be squeezed out before the end. Who he eventually supports will be telling and decisive, and it certainly won’t be Gove.

Gove. What a shame. As educationalists I and Sears long championed him. However his sickening ‘wokeness’ is too much to bare. I have little else to add, other than I’d bet my possessions on him making the final two, as the prime anti-Boris candidate and most acceptable face of Brexit to the Party’s many Remainer MPs. However, I rule him out as PM, because whether against Boris or against the candidate Boris backs, he won’t carry the membership.

The Dark Horses:
 (Baker – Patel – McVey)

The Sears Take:

From a personal point of view, these are the candidates I am most keen to run a strong campaign, and I suspect who emerges most likely out of the three will be a candidate the ERG could coalesce around. McVey has declared, and is making lots of noise that will delight the ears of the membership – Slashing foreign aid to 2010 levels and stating that parents rather than the state should have the final say on a child’s education gives an indication of the kind of domestic policies that might be pursued assuming that Brexit could be delivered. Lack of recognition, her enthusiasm for No Deal and the feigned horror from the media at her policies will probably ensure that the Wets in Parliament do not give her the support needed.

Whilst not declared, both Baker and Patel could cause a lot of the front runners an instant headache.

Baker is a true Brexit purist and hasn’t wavered like other former purists in the face of immense pressure, he also finds himself aligned with the membership on a range of issues – economics, the role of the state and the importance of the nation state. The question mark on him for me, is in the debates up against Gove or Boris, could he project himself enough to show that he could run the country.

Patel is in effect the female version of Baker in terms of strengths, but could potentially deal with both Gove and Boris in a head-to-head. The fact is, that regardless of who fronts the campaign for this wing of the party, I’d suspect that the other two would fall in behind – it would be a triumvirate that would be formidable and influential, and shouldn’t be written off.

The Tooze Take:

Like Sears, the ERGers occupy my ideological heartland. What I would give to see Patel run and become the 21st Century’s Ethno-diverse Essex-based Thatcher!

Alas, I have little analytically to add other than with other ERGers already firmly behind Boris and Raab, I don’t see any of them making it all the way. However, one of them must be in the mix, if only to hold the front-runner’s feet to the No Deal flames and to throw their support behind the ones left most likely to achieve a clean break outcome.

Final thoughts:

For either of us, there is no doubt that the soul of the Conservative party is at stake in this Leadership race; and by consequence it is more vulnerable to total collapse than ever, for this is not the hour for soul-searching.

The Brexit issue has riven through the traditional wings of the Party, but they are all still  firmly on display; The Stewart-Govite ‘Wets’; the One Nation Hunts and Johnsons; the Thatcherite Raabs and Patels. All want to push forward not just their view on Brexit, but their view of ‘life after Brexit’. Indeed, despite our joint conviction as committed Brexiteers and acolytes of the ERG line of thinking, we are also sensible enough to know that we are currently in the minority with regards to issues beyond it, particularly Britain’s future economic direction and the size and role of the state. Yet, if the candidates do not keep their future plans a mere footnote, and if the ERG-Purists do not at the very least define the debate in a country and party where the political faultlines have been redrawn around positions on Brexit, this may be the last leadership election for the Conservatives that matters; the last to produce a Conservative PM, perhaps indefinitely.

There is zero room for error.

With luck, the European elections will have focused minds, and despite the delusion and denial over the Brexit Party’s success in the media chatterati, it seems the message is sinking in with Conservatives more profoundly. This may be their survival instinct finally kicking in. As Sears has written, the Peterborough by-election will be a decisive moment in cementing the importance of a hard/clean Brexit in the mind of the candidates, Tory MPs and the membership. It comes right on the eve of a campaign which if Sears is correct and the Brexit Party avoids its ‘Peterloo moment’, would propel a dynamic and engaging Boris Johnson into a premiership that may just hold back the joint pressures currently squeezing the Tories end-to-end. His shear popularity, name-recognition and likely electoral success alone, cannot be written off. Indeed, he may be the only figure with the political ‘cojones’ to ride out a No Deal Brexit within his own party, and the screaming voices of dissent in the country.

But he is divisive, not least among Tory MPs who will decide if he makes it to the membership, but even people like myself who doubt his convictions if not his abilites. Much more likely in my view is that we will have Raab; who may be enough to keep the Tories in office, but perhaps not in power without an ‘understanding’ with other Brexit forces. What is undeniable, is that anything other than a clean Brexit will be fatal for the Tories and that whomever ascends to the top, they will have to suffer the likes of Hammond, Soames, Greive and Rudd – who would fall on their sword to stop it. Only time will tell, but any leader will have to draw blood against such forces in this contest and its aftermath if the Conservatives want to rectify the public’s misgivings, become coherent and stay relevant.