Mindless commentary; victorless result; pointless election

Just four things that could have been predicted for the European election and all came to pass:

  • The protest parties would come out on top;
  • The BBC would ignore the rest of Europe;
  • Every political spokesman would claim any result to be a victory for whatever they believe.

The turn-out was derisory, as usual, though higher than you might expect for an election that had no noticeable local campaigning and was considered by most to be pointless. The Brexit party won the biggest vote share everywhere except Ulster and Scotland, which have their own regional electoral eccentricities. The protest parties overall – Brexit, Green, SNooPy, Plaid Cymru, LibDem – did very well.

This is fertile ground for humility and suggestions of compromise, but as the election means nothing in practical terms, commentators can say what they like. We have had the Greens, who are not exactly known for being grounded in any sort of reality, asserting that it is a ringing victory for Remain, if you add the right votes together and ignore the others) and the Brexit Party, and some within the Conservative Party, saying the vote demands a no-deal Brexit. Labour are split down the middle as usual: the Remainac wing have urged that the party move to a “Remain” position notwithstanding that every opinion poll and election to date has shown that Labour does better when promising to leave.

It all makes to difference in reality: British MEPs are only 9.7% of the chamber; the Parliament is practically a toothless talking shop in any case; and Britain is on the way out, whatever the fancies of the pro-Europeans. Therefore all this can only be seen as, at its best, an experiment in psychology. Those of us on the ground watching the politicians clashing in their ivory towers and hoping not to be hit by cross-fire would dearly like to know more of how the various opinions are formed and maintained, but perhaps next time a psychiatrist could be used, not a billion-pound electoral process.

The quiet leadership contest

There is a party leadership contest going on. Few people have noticed. It is for the Liberal Democrats, and the press has gone wildly mute about it.

The LibDems (remember them?) are replacing the much-respected Vince Cable, who has unplugged himself to seek a deserved retirement and need a fresh, young leader to take the party into whatever it does these days.

The criteria require that the leader be an MP, which is a very narrow field, and as Tim Farron found, Bible-believing Christians or Jews need not apply. The membership are all wrapped still in the cult of the youthful leader as showing a break from the past, but if they exclude anyone whose main campaigns have been to recognise an independent Palestinian state even though there isn’t one and to boycott Easter eggs then it’s bye-bye Layla (to be fair to her, that deep hatred of chocolate eggs was over what she thinks is excessive packaging rather than for encouraging Bible-believing Christians like Tim).

It looks like it’s Jo Swinson’s turn then.

A little advice for her in a thankless task: stop the intemperate attacks on the character and intelligence of those who support Brexit: they include a larger proportion of your own membership and of your activists than you realise. Brexit supporting Liberals are just keeping their heads down, as are Christian and Jewish members: take a look at what they have to endure from their fellow members. Good luck Jo.

Rudd, Amber: Green light for Boris

One speculation is dead then: Amber Rudd is not standing for the Conservative leadership. Neither at the moment is she supporting any particular candidate.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Rudd ruled herself out. The headline suggested support for Boris Johnson’s bid, but it is hard to read that in her guarded, reconciliatory tones.

Rudd is a serious player in that she has held a number of Cabinet position, not always successfully, and is currently the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, albeit as a demotion from the office of Home Secretary: however her known pro-EU sympathies and the support she recently expressed for a try-again-and-answer-nicely-this-time referendum has put her amongst the company of the damned as far as Brexiteers are concerned. Her performance too at the Home Office stands against her, so it is a sensible move not to be seen eyeing the top job.

As to Boris, we asked yesterday ‘Is Boris Good Enough‘ and had to conclude that judgments based on personality can miss the point entirely. Here then Amber Rudd sounds cautious: it may be that in a few weeks’ time she will be begging him to keep her in her job, as others bay for her blood and his supporters look for ministerial positions as their rewards. It is a smart move therefore. It is not in any way though a complete, personal endorsement of Boris nor a strike against other candidates.

We can expect a series of similar interviews from ministers and others as they watch the landscape of patronage changing around them.

Is Boris Good Enough?

The plates are moving.  I observed before that the run-away favourite in the leadership race even before it has begun is Boris Johnson, but that he is not popular amongst his colleagues, nor amongst those concerned for the social conservative heart of the party. 

Nothing moulds a man’s opinion of another quite like the prospect of their career depending on him. Liked or not, with movement in his direction, the plates are shifting around Boris Johnson. Some who previously said they would not work with Boris Johnson have softened and praised him, and brushed aside all the flaws in his character and conduct. 

This could end up with a classic Conservative Party coronation, with all dissenting voices hushed and a universal chant of ‘Slava! Slava! Slava!‘ as the chosen one ascends the steps of Number 10.  Two leaders have fallen; a third stands.  Before we look so far though, what of the man himself, and will he shine or make a complete hash of it?

We may in fact have mistaken his promise.

He is a showman, no doubt, but then so was Tony Blair, and he won three elections on the trot.  He should in theory do better for the country than Blair simply because he and his team are sound Conservatives with, between them, the sort of experience of the real world that Blair (and in fact Cameron) lacked.

The downside was examined recently on ‘The Conservative Woman‘ (our colleague Fay reads it: she’s not written anything for us yet, at least nothing Master Hobbes found decent and proper to print).  Their article ‘Anyone But Boris’ is sobering.

Nonetheless, Blair made a go of it because he had Gordon Brown as a sobering influence.  Cameron had George Osborne and Theresa May (and although both have since undergone a damnatio memoriae, before the mechanics of Brexit so overwhelmed politics they were the steadying influence a fresh-faced new governed needed). Who will Boris have?  That depends on whom he calls to his side:  Michael Gove, David Gauke, James Brokenshire and some more reticent souls not yet in the government may be persuaded to bring the stability which an impulsive character requires.

The real division in the party and politics is not Brexit but character.  A judgment of character is always wrong, and my worries are of character, not of ability.  Boris is the brightest in the pack, no doubt about it, and that chummy, clownlike attitude affected since his university days is off-putting to those of us who prefer a sober mien.

However, I go back to something Jordan Peterson has discussed, on differing character traits: we need both the sober, exact, conservative disposition and also the messy, creative, liberal disposition in our body politic.  Boris shows the latter characteristic in spades, just as Theresa May shows the former.  The two types perceive the world about them in completely different ways, neither wrong but different.  They might not get on, and will annoy each other intensely, but if they can work together in government then with two eyes not one they will see the nation in three dimensions.

See also:

Books

By Boris Johnson:

Downing Street: and so it begins

It is always a funny race, for the Conservative leadership, all affect politeness and reluctance. Looking at the leading contenders:

It is always a funny race, for the Conservative leadership: the candidates are all affect politeness and reluctance, while behind them are teams hell-bent on getting their man, or woman, over that line, without seeming to do so.

Amongst all the contenders, the first commentary on each has been about where they stand on leaving the European Union, and it rarely goes much beyond this, but after Exit Day finally passes, with a new Prime Minister in place, the focus will be on how they approach Conservative concerns on reducing tax, free commerce and curbing the bullying state.

Looking at the leading contenders so far (and others will follow) –

Boris Johnson (Uxbridge, formerly of Henley): the bookies’ favourite.  Born in New York to a Somerset family, served two terms as Mayor of London where he proved popular.  His Brexit credentials are riding high:  he was the leading public voice of the Leave campaign and resigned rather than accept the Chequers proposals, although as this permitted him to resume his paid career in journalism there may have been more to that.  He is popular amongst the wider membership, if not amongst his parliamentary colleagues. The strong social conservative wing of the party dislikes his apparent social liberal stance, noting his speech in support for gay marriage in 2013, and his notorious ways with the fillies.  Said to be the most intelligent candidate in the field, nevertheless his public persona as bumbling clown has ensured that nationally he is loved and hated in equal measure and for some reason the latter prevails in Scotland.  His position on Brexit has overwhelmed all other analysis of his positions.

Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton): the nearest behind Boris in the betting. Born and raised in Buckinghamshire, he had a career as a high-flying solicitor.  He has been in Parliament only since 2010 and was almost unknown to the public until he was appointed as Brexit Secretary when David Davis resigned following the Chequers Summit.  Raab burnished his Brexit credentials by himself resigning rather than support the Withdrawal Agreement.   He may be ‘Boris with his trousers on’.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath): born in Edinburgh and adopted and raised in Aberdeen, he was with Boris Johnson the public face of the Brexit campaign.  He is only a recent politician – like Johnson, he is a journalist by trade, but unlike his was at the top end of the national press, rising to the assistant editorship of The Times in the 1990.  He is a long-time friend of Boris Johnson’s.  Extreme-end Brexiteers have spoken against Gove for remaining in the Cabinet through all the resignations, and for appearing to stab his friend in the back at the time of the last leadership contest (though the circumstances, not widely known, acquit him).  His public persona is more reserved such that he has not attracted great public affection, which may not play well in the media.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire):  a candidate for leadership last time round and the last firm Brexiteer standing at that point.  She was seen to lose her place with a gaffe about childbearing but overall her lack of recognition amongst the public was more telling.  Since then, Leadsom has attracted great admiration for her conduct as Leader of the House of Commons in a troublesome time. The question remains whether the BBC would accept her.

Liam Fox (North Somerset): also a candidate for leadership last time and another firm Brexiteer, but who has not hinted at another run at the position. A doctor by trade, born in East Kilbride and educated in Glasgow, he served in the army medical corps and has sat in Parliament since 1992.  He is firmly in the Thatcherite camp and indeed he served in the Cabinet of John Major.  He has been since 2016 the first and so far only Secretary of State for International Trade, in which capacity he has been busy negotiating across the globe.  He has been criticised for failing to sign any major trade deal in this time, although as that would be barred by EU law until actual exit, this is muted.  He may be crippled politically by the mysterious Werrity scandal from his time as Defence Secretary.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and the Border); a recent declaration of interest.  He is a soldier, and served in Afghanistan – his slight demeanour belies the reality of his physical achievements, recorded in his books.  He is respected for his military past but hampered by having supported the Remain campaign.

Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey):  Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary since Boris Johnson’s resignation and before that the longest serving Health Secretary ever.  He also supported Remain in the referendum campaign but says that his has since changed his mind.  He is well regarded in his current role and did well also in the thankless job of Health Secretary and, remarkably, seems to have got through it without becoming a pariah.  Well liked and perhaps seen as a safe pair of hands, he is saddled with his previous support for Remain, and a reputation as a social liberal.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove): Home Secretary, talented certainly, if lacking in warmth, but tainted by having been on the Remain side at the referendum.

These are not the only declarations so far.  Time will tell how expose to the race affects perceptions.  The wider membership of the party has strong opinions within it, but they only get to choose out of the final two – it is Conservative MPs who draw the shortlist up, and if they knock out the most popular candidates, little can be done about it.

There has been talk that this time there will be no coronation; that the members will have a genuine choice of two, but it is still open to MPs to choose their preference and a cypher as his rival to fix the result.