Beware the interesting politician

Published by The i paper (1st July, 2019)

Last summer I spent a few days talking to voters deep in the heart of Trumpland. In small towns across West Virginia, I heard the same phrases crop up again and again from friendly voters frustrated by economic and political failure. Many disliked their president’s sexism and social media outbursts but they warmed to a man they saw as speaking like them, standing up to the system and seeking to shake up Washington. When I asked about political excesses or errant personal behaviour, they defended him as ‘only human’.

Now I hear similar phrases from the lips of Tory activists who back Boris Johnson, a Trump imitator even down to his over-long tie and tousled hair. Here is a man, they say, who can shake up the system, challenge political correctness and thrill voters after the stasis of Theresa May’s era. Damian Collins, the usually sensible Tory MP who chairs the culture select committee, justified joining the former foreign secretary’s camp on the basis he would restore ‘excitement to our politics’.

This has long been Mr Johnson’s unique selling point: he is the candidate with the fizz to engage voters while unleashing creative disruption. Hence the long-held claim he is the ‘Heineken’ Tory who refreshes parts of the electorate other Tories cannot reach.

The BBC website reports on a focus group in a marginal seat conducted by Nick Robinson, who observes how people speak about Mr Johnson as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘charismatic’. The presenter makes much of the fact they would prefer to go to the pub with him over a night out with Jeremy Hunt – who by contrast was seen as boring, although trustworthy and better candidate for a bank manager.

This charge that he is bland, another grey man, is hurled at Mr Hunt by the Johnson camp while their leader insists he ducks debate to avoid blue-on-blue clashes. So there was the childish jibe Mr Hunt is ‘Theresa in trousers’. Critical MPs say he is boring. This reinforces internal polling showing the Foreign Secretary has a problem over perceptions of his personality. Mr Hunt has reacted with a barrage of jokey tweets and pictures of eating cold pizza and drinking Irn Bru to prove he is a regular guy.

But pause for a moment – especially if you are one of those Tory members handed the right to select our next prime minister. This election is picking the next leader of our nation at a critical juncture in its history, not some goofball to run events in a students’ union. The result has potential to determine if there is any hope of healing severe wounds in a divided society while impacting on national prosperity.

Brexit is the key issue facing the winner, but he can also decide how to safeguard defences, launch war, educate children, build more houses and solve the social care crisis. It is hard to imagine a multinational company, searching for a new chief executive, would be guided by a candidate’s ability to crack jokes. So why should a country?

Politics is seen with some validity as show business for ugly people – a reminder of the vanities and self-adoration involved – but the stakes could hardly be higher at a time when the profession is held in such low regard, populism is on the rise and we face the catastrophe of no-deal Brexit.

The last thing Westminster needs is more frenetic ‘excitement’ driven by egomaniacs after the events of recent years, especially when such treacherous seas lie ahead for the listing ship of state. It takes a boring slog to sort complex problems, not crowd entertainment.

If Johnson was exciting due to original ideology or charisma that unified his country, that might validate his leadership claims. But his bluster is an act, his duplicity well known and his ineptitude risky – as shown during his short stint in high office with the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. His wit hides shallowness, exposed by the vapidity of his Brexit stance, and he is despised by many voters.

Yet Mr Hunt, for all his faults and flip-flops, has proved himself a serious player first in business and then in politics, steel sometimes glinting beneath that smooth surface. I suggested he might end up in Downing Street five years ago, then tipped him as Mrs May’s successor in 2017.

As ballot papers go out, Tory members must think carefully before casting votes since the future of their country as well as their party is at stake. Those I meet tend to be kind and thoughtful folk, even if many have developed latterly an unhealthy Brexit fixation.

They should accept their largely white, male, wealthy and elderly electorate does not reflect a fast-changing nation, then question if they really want to risk the union and economic well-being by sending a clown into Downing Street.

They might also ponder the new YouGov poll that shows voters cooling on Mr Johnson and warming to Mr Hunt after seeing them both in action. ‘If the Conservatives are looking towards Boris Johnson as a magic election winner, the evidence is simply no longer there,’ concluded Anthony Wells, the firm’s director of research.

More proof the famous Heineken factor has turned flat. Mr Johnson is still seen as the more likeable of the pair fighting to be prime minister, even as other ratings hurtle in the wrong direction. Yes, he might be fun over a few beers. But this is not a contest to chose the country’s comedian-in-chief.

We desperately need serious leadership as Westminster attempts to resolve the Brexit conundrum, reunite the country and fix some crucial issues backed up in a paralysed political system. Britain does not need a tinpot Trump, even if can make witty quips and classical quotations. And how nice it would be to live in boring times again.

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