Sunday 7 July 2019

Why is the Tory Leadership Contest So Bloody Boring?

Here's the state of play in early July. We have a Tory leadership contest seemingly careening toward no deal which, to be blunt, will be the biggest preventable peace time disaster in British political history. Yet scrutiny of the candidates is superficial and interest in the contest is warned off thanks to its being mind-crushingly dull. It hasn't captured the public's imagination, and even when you tune in to 24 hour rolling coverage you get the sense of a story featured out of obligation than "newsworthiness". Even those habituated to the plod and grind of everyday bourgeois politics would find more jollies in a mini-fridge instruction manual.

Politics is institutionally boring, and its marrying to arcane ceremony works to make it unappealing. It's almost as if it's a deliberate ruse designed to exclude, alienate, and ward off mass participation. Politics however shouldn't be more entertaining. After all, fascism, among other things, is said to be the aestheticisation of politics, and its reduction to celebrity over the course of the last decade gifted us the hilarity of Boris Johnson and the you-can't-say-that conceit of Nigel Farage. But as the stakes in politics have intensified and the issues have sharpened, so establishment politics has become even more boring. Which the Tory party contest exemplifies.

Consider earlier, happier, less fraught times. How does the leadership campaign now compare to this century's contests? The first contest for the Tory party crown was, on paper, an interesting one. It featured Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David Davis and Michael Ancram, all of whom variously represented different wings of the Tory party. In a bit of a shocker, IDS beat Portillo by a single vote into the final round, which he then went on to win by a country mile over cuddly Uncle Ken. Nevertheless there was some consideration of what the party should be: an explicit europhobic outfit (under IDS) replete with all the nasty stuff the Tories are associated with, or something a bit more liberal and centre facing. The party membership then weren't as psychopathic as today but the temptation of embracing euroscepticism and the perception it was a real vote winner proved too much for some. Come 2003, IDS as the most ineffective Tory leader then seen was out and Michael Howard was effectively appointed unopposed as his replacement to lead the party into the 2005 election. Following a fairly dismal showing on the second worst turnout for a century, the next contest, between David Davis and Dave, was interesting from the standpoint of Tory strategic thinking. At this point Dave was at pains to paint himself as a liberal, light touch Tory chillaxed with modern Britain and a seeming determination to turn the party away from its Europe obsessions. Meanwhile, DD promised little beyond the red meat offering of IDS, except with added bastardry. On this occasion, the shrinking membership went with pragmatism. After all, a centrist makeover did Labour no end of good, so why not the Tories? Ken Clarke and the disgraced Liam Fox were eliminated in short order and Dave romped home with a two-thirds landslide.

Then came Labour's turn. In 2007 Tony Blair made good on his long-announced departure and vacated the leadership. However, Gordon Brown believed the big job was his by right and moved heaven and earth to ensure no one stood against him, and that virtually the entire PLP nominated him as Blair's successor. John McDonnell, who announced an abortive challenge never had a chance of getting on the ballot paper, while Brown completely disingenuously welcomed the opportunity of a proper election he knew was not going to happen. Then in 2010 we had a summer-long contest with David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, and Diane Abbott (there was some behind the scenes jiggery-pokery between John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, which meant neither stood). While it didn't set the world alight, Diane's programme and Ed Ball's technocratic anti-austerity platform arguably ensured Ed Miliband's campaign positioned itself in soft social democracy territory to scoop up these votes. And, for the headline writers, there was a rich vein in the sibling rivalry angle. Nevertheless, not spotted by anyone at the time (ahem), Diane actually came third in numbers of raw votes cast suggesting the left were not quite as dead as was supposed. Skipping five years forward Labour crashed and burned, and the next leadership contest was gearing itself up to be the worst in Labour Party history. That was until Jeremy Corbyn got on the ballot and, very quickly, all hell broke loose. The same was true of the following summer. Unreconciled (and still unreconciled), the PLP majority's cold coup went hot and we had an entertaining summer of socialist politics vs nob gags. Meanwhile, the collapse of Dave's premiership was accompanied by the spectacular implosion of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the death-by-media car wreck of Andrea Leadsom's campaign and Theresa May's seemingly effortless coronation. How the Tories then amused themselves at Labour's expense, not at all realising there was a ticking time bomb of incompetence and inflexibility at the heart of their creaking operation.

When these leadership elections weren't entertaining, in the narrowest sense of the word, they did at least allow politics to come out into the open. The two Tory leadership elections of the 00s covered strategic issues and wrestled with how to overcome an unpopularity that was almost a structural feature of British politics. For Labour, 2010 was about how to rebuild an electoral coalition after an extended but bruising period of government, and 2015 and 16 about what kind of party it should be. With the Brexit stakes incomparably higher than these considerations, which, you'll remember, is simultaneously an existential crisis for the Conservatives, it's almost as if efforts to keep the Tory party leadership election a boring non-event that downplays the urgency of the moment. Even when Johnson and Hunt flag up and, for party selectoralist reasons, talk up the possibility of no deal it comes with a shrug of the shoulders. What would be a disaster, which in his honest moments Hunt acknowledges, is smoothed over with nods to managerialist preparation and patriotic boosterism.

Therefore Brexit is suppressed not so much as an issue but as a danger. Talking it down as a brewing crisis is a deliberate strategy on the part of both leadership contenders to allow themselves to shine. Despite the rather colourful beginnings of the campaign, Johnson has allowed the much-aired revelations about his private life, political (racist) opinions, and total incompetence bounce off by being simply boring and not doing anything. While not saying much of substance while touring the home county tea rooms, and avoiding as much scrutiny as possible until most ballot papers have been returned, it has allowed his outriders to cop the flak and make the case (he's funny! He can win!). And Hunt too is complicit in this. He has flip-flopped all over the place when it comes to Brexit, moving within a fortnight from a pragmatic consideration of the Hallowe'en deadline in light of a renegotiated deal to hard ultra Brexit, and the annexation of the Irish Republic to solve the backstop issue. At one point he might have looked vaguely threatening to Johnson's chances, but as the contest wore on and with the weary inevitably of the latter's victory growing ever more obvious, Hunt has been forced into making hysterical pronouncements about Brexit while pulling his punches. He doesn't want to damage Johnson too much or criticise him too harshly because, well, he has a career to think about. And he knows, he feels it in his gut, that strong words can easily float over to the other side of the Commons and be weaponised against the Tories in the event of an election. Pathetic really that the Tories have a thing or two to teach certain Labour MPs and their hangers on about how you do solidarity.

Why then is the Tory leadership contest more snore than cor or phwoar? Because both contenders are reluctant to face up to the seriousness of Brexit, particularly Johnson, and so downplay it without having to account for their lackadaisical attitude. Because as prep up until the moment Johnson crosses Number 10's threshold he's playing a super cautious game without saying much - something we'll probably see again if/when he takes the Tories to the country. And because for self-interested reasons, Hunt isn't about to rock the boat. Given the gravity of the situation, the politics of the Tory leadership election, its coverage, and its manipulation by both candidates fall far short of addressing the serious hole the country is in, let alone offering ways out. It's a failure that may damn them in the history books, but leave the likes of you and me having to pay the price.

1 comment:

Dipper said...

its boring because everyone knows what is going to happen. The Ashcroft poll in the Daily mail and on his website was quite revealing. Tory members have a pretty clear view on Johnson's pros and cons, and also Hunt. Johnson is being elected to do a specific job.

The reason we are here is because the political establishment across both parties is desperate to hang on to the EU as the body that has effective oversight of the UK, either through Remaining or through agreeing a form of membership which sees us stripped of voting rights and still having to pay and follow their rules. This would be a disaster for the UK as we would be powerless to stop the slide to full colonial status. Hence we just need to get out and then negotiate the relationship. Johnson is the only person who can do that.