The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore as prime minister, is formally underway. Ten candidates passed the 1922 Committee’s nomination threshold, and now enter a series of ballots of Conservative MPs to whittle them down to two, who will face a ballot of around 100,000 party members with an average age somewhere around 65 (according to the Bow Group’s estimate). The rest of us can do nothing but watch with impotent horror.
The contest has been going on, undeclared, since May’s disastrous 2017 election performance: Dominic Raab’s tenure and resignation as Brexit secretary was conducted with at least one eye on this inevitable contest. Esther McVey, whose big media splash has been to applaud homophobic protesters in Birmingham, launched her campaign speaking behind an icon of Thatcher at a meeting of the ardent Europhobes in the Bruges Group. Every meeting of the Bruges Group offers some bleak comedy. Last time saw Mark Francois sweat through some Tennyson; this time there was a one-man insurrection mounted by a YouTube conspiracy theorist who calls himself ‘Daddy Dragon’. Graham Moore, as he is otherwise known to the world, declared McVey to be ‘fake news’ or a ‘fake Tory’ for having backed May’s deal earlier this year. Mr Dragon is probably not representative of the Tory membership as a whole, but his outburst is a reminder that Brexit fever has gripped a substantial portion of them, so that even a No-Dealer like McVey can be judged a milksop.
There were no stage invasions at Matt Hancock’s campaign launch, as he performed a David Brent/Silicon Valley cut-up, promising ‘emotionally charged platforms’ and distributing branded caramel waffles to the press; Jeremy Hunt was somniferous; Michael Gove struggled out from a weekend embroiled in headlines about cocaine; Rory Stewart continues his unorthodox campaign to appeal to people who don’t have a vote in this election.
Most candidates have tapdanced around the real question for most of the party members: whether they could secure something different from May’s deal, what they would do to secure it if so, and whether they would really leave with no deal in October if not. Various fantasies are afloat – Leadsom’s ‘managed exit’, a kind of legislative buffet approach that has no chance of European agreement, or Raab’s ‘final offer’ ultimatum – none of which will survive contact with reality; several candidates have also made noises that they’d be willing to suspend parliament outright in order to hammer through Brexit. That idea was laughable a year ago, and remains improbable now – Labour will today table a cross-party motion to prevent it – but has become an idée fixe among some backbenchers, for whom ‘taking back control’ has become less a slogan for revivified parliamentary democracy than code for a blue-rinse decisionism, untaxed by questions of consent and compromise.
It’s unclear whether any of this matters, except as an index of the Tories’ more general crack-up. The overwhelming favourite to win is Boris Johnson, who will launch his campaign today, but has as yet suffered no interrogation by the press. His sole proposal so far has been a tax cut for high earners, which would especially benefit those on lucrative pensions, or who live off rents or investments – in other words, those likely to vote in the leadership election. It is a piece of cynical retail politics, a promise that will last exactly as long as is convenient for Johnson.
MPs’ reservations about him have begun to evaporate with the belief that only he can win back the party’s base from Farage, but it is worth rehearsing how astonishingly unsuitable he is: a man who conspired with a fraudster chum to beat up a journalist; who spent years cheerfully fictionalising in his Telegraph column, honing a talent for deceit that he later brought to the EU referendum campaign; who makes bluffing and unpreparedness his watchwords, and whose laziness is near proverbial in every office and department he has headed; a man to whom lying comes as easily as breathing. That’s not to mention his malicious and incontinent personal life, which if nothing else ought to make him the most easily blackmailed of all the candidates.
It’s hard to know what he believes in, save the advance of Boris Johnson: he disowned long years of pandering to reaction (he wrote of ‘bum-boys’ and ‘picaninnies with watermelon smiles’) when standing for mayor of London, but happily returned to it afterwards. He will never admit to having changed his mind: what he believes at the moment is what he has always believed, and any evidence to the contrary is made up, or misconstrued, or to be snorted away with a sub-Wodehouse flourish. It may be tempting to think of him, with his nihilism and ambition, as the British Trump: they play the same faux-outsider card and have a similar relationship to the truth; but whereas Trump has a genuine reserve of rage and fixation with particular policies, Johnson’s desire for power is unimpeded by such attachments.
Were he to win, it would mean that the party faithful have tired both of Cameron’s oily Notting Hill Toryism and of May’s threnody to duty, in favour of the comfort blanket of tax cuts and two fingers to Brussels. They will also have judged that the only way to stem electoral bleed to the Brexit Party is to be led by the nearest thing they have to Nigel Farage.
Whoever wins will face a substantial legitimacy crisis as a new PM. The BBC’s intention is to treat this contest like a general election, with candidate debates and Andrew Neil as inquisitor general; the coverage is likely to frustrate the 99.8 per cent of us who don’t have a vote but feel, with democratic impertinence, that we ought to have some say in who governs us. Johnson made a similar complaint about Gordon Brown’s accession. But the legitimacy crisis is far broader: an incoming PM will be at the helm of a government with a tiny working majority (and that’s assuming they maintain the support of the DUP), whose manifesto promises from 2017 have been consigned firmly to the dustbin. They will be committing to a new path on Brexit while riding on the tail end of a parliamentary session that has already spanned two years.
If the contest reaches a membership ballot and lasts until the end of July, the opportunity for parliamentary opposition depends on the few sitting days around the summer recess and party conference season: space, perhaps, for a confidence vote, but it seems unlikely that the Tory MPs who once decried the prospect of Johnson as PM would really move to dislodge him. Their minds will have been concentrated by the Peterborough by-election, in which Labour increased its majority despite a plummeting vote share. In multi-party contests, the UK’s electoral system is too capricious for the Tories to have any confidence that a general election would not deliver a Corbyn government, especially in the disarray that might follow a confidence vote.
Democratic rancour and parliamentary gridlock portend headlines about a ‘constitutional crisis’ come October. The deeper political problem is the mismatch between what people think they are doing when they vote, and what the rules of British democracy say they are doing. This was true in the non-binding (but politically inescapable) 2016 referendum, but it is also true in general elections. Formally, voters select an MP who happens to be a member of a party; in reality, voters see the party and its leader long before they consider the virtues of their local candidate, if at all, and personal votes are usually very small (though vanity impels some politicians to think otherwise). Something rankles about a change in government without an election, though it’s hard to point to a constitutional justification for the disquiet. Voters’ democratic sentiment exceeds their formal entitlement.
It is tempting to think of this concentration of power among high-ranking personalities as a British manifestation of a global trend: it is certainly undergirded by the infrastructure of digital media and the 24-hour news cycle. But its roots are also longer term. In an incisive preface to a 1964 edition of Bagehot’s writing on the English constitution, Richard Crossman bemoaned political commentators’ habit of adopting Bagehot’s description of the workings of the 19th-century parliament as if it persisted unchanged, but overlooking his sceptical spirit of inquiry, which delighted in revealing the workings behind Westminster’s tattered arras. Crossman argued that the transformation of the modern political party into an electoral machine, demanding loyalty from its representatives in Parliament and punishing deviation, effectively vitiated traditional parliamentary power. ‘Politics,’ he wrote, ‘is inevitably personified and simplified … into a battle between two super-leaders’ at the head of two counterposed political armies.
Mass suffrage and Labour’s entry into Westminster as a class-based political party, Crossman wrote, fundamentally changed the way Parliament operated. Weak electoral caucuses were transformed into disciplined social factions, but Parliament risked becoming a ‘shadow fight’, with the real political struggle taking place inside party bureaucracies, shut away from wider popular access. He worried that ‘effective power in all spheres of life – economic, social, political – is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, parliamentary control of the executive has been steadily decreasing, without being replaced by other methods of democratic control.’
Parliament has of late begun to rediscover some of its powers: as the Tory contest disgorges its victor into Downing Street, I hope, on behalf of the 99.8 per cent of the electorate without a vote, that the House of Commons tests Crossman’s thesis to destruction.