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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Tory moderates backing Boris Johnson are handing the party over to extremists

Published by New Statesman (21st June, 2019)

The only good thing to have emerged so far from the depressing Conservative leadership campaign has been the arrival of Rory Stewart as a front-rank political player. Here is a serious character, his life filled with extraordinary achievements, who displayed a rare ability to connect with people beyond Westminster and to broaden the reach of his party. Despite his fogeyish character, he has proved uncannily adept at social media. He has even been astonishingly candid at times, such as admitting with great charm that his stumbling performance in the second televised debate was ‘lacklustre’. 

But the flickering excitement over his run was extinguished by the Boris Johnson juggernaut. This is a sad reflection on modern politics that underlines the scale of Conservative crisis. For despite a shared school (Eton) and university (Oxford), these two figures could not be more different. Johnson, his soul corroded by the toxic intensity of his ambition, is a person who repulses even many Tories — let alone the younger, female and ethnic minority voters needed to secure the party’s future — for his deceit, his flip-flopping, his immorality, his ineptitude and his poisonous populism.

Johnson’s decision to jump on the Brexit bandwagon wrecked David Cameron’s stop-start efforts to modernise the party by reaching out to new voters, while the ‘nasty party’ brand returned in force under Theresa May with her “hostile environment” for migrants. Now we hear Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, vowing to quit the party after 36 years if Johnson becomes prime minister. Since the last Tory leadership contest in 2016, when his campaign disintegrated amid valid questions over his abilities, he has underscored such concerns by showing incompetence in office, contempt for business and dog-whistle bigotry in his writing.

So it is surprising, to say the least, that Johnson has converted so many MPs to his cause in this contest — especially after a campaign that has kept him hidden, for all his alleged ‘Heineken appeal’, yet which still managed to bungle its big tax pledge. I accept many politicians are primarily focused on their careers and are panicking over the return of Nigel Farage. Yet it is still disturbing to see the speed with which many moderate Tories have jettisoned their proclaimed beliefs to jump into bed with this duplicitous character, despite the heavy presence of European Research Group fanatics in Johnson’s camp and the urgent need for the Tories to reclaim the centre ground. 

Typical was Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who claimed to represent the future in his own leadership campaign by droning on about technology. He campaigned on the need to pursue progressive policies, to defend business and to oppose a no-deal exit from the EU while speaking out against lurching to the right. Yet the dust had barely settled on his dismal efforts to reach Downing Street before this slippery minister was endorsing Johnson, the antithesis of all he claimed to represent just days earlier. 

Sadly he is far from alone. Look through the list of Boris backers and sprinkled among the unlovely ultras who have driven Britain into the Brexit cul-de-sac are a handful of highly-respected moderates such as Bim Afolami, Oliver Dowden, Rishi Sunak and Tracey Crouch. Now, in the ultimate betrayal, they have been joined by George Osborne’s Evening Standard, which backed Johnson in a befuddled leader that defied so many previous statements by the paper and its editor. Is it any wonder people lack faith in politicians when they see figures abandon their previous stances with such effortless ease? 

Boris Johnson has not changed, even if his handlers have pressed the mute button to prevent blunders and he has had a haircut. He remains a tinpot Trump, driven only by ego, and his presence in Downing Street will further demean Britain. Yet one moderate who rallied to Johnson’s flag told me they would be able to contain him, echoing the words complacent US Republicans as their party fell into the hands of a racist nationalist. Others claim Johnson will embrace his moderate roots again, last seen when he was mayor of London. Tory MP Johnny Mercer even claimed ‘he started all this One Nation stuff’, which seemed harsh on Benjamin Disraeli. 

This all seems unlikely as Johnson pursues his Brexit fantasies and panders to his army of hardline followers. His career shows that he can do anything, say anything and never be trusted. There are rumours rippling around Westminster that he has made different promises to people from different wings of his party — and clearly either the moderates or the ultras will be disappointed over Brexit. Those on the liberal wing that have embraced Johnson remind me of those foolish Labour moderates who lent their nominations to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 to ‘broaden’ the debate. The legacy of their stupidity is a party that has been taken over by the hard left, is untrustworthy on foreign policy and is being investigated for anti-Semitism. 

Unless Jeremy Hunt can pull off an upset, we are watching the Conservative Party being placed in the hands of extremists. This is the next wave of the fallout from the risible 2016 referendum that continues to plague our nation. Already the Tories have destroyed the trust of business, devastated their support among younger generations and driven away many liberal conservatives. Now we can only observe with horror the sight of moderates, to their eternal shame, assisting the takeover of their party by an incompetent populist in league with destructive nationalists.

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