Boris Johnson has wrecked the Tories. He should own the wreckage
Published by The Guardian (4th October, 2017)
It was a dismal end to a strange, sombre conference. Last year Theresa May said she wanted a new approach to politics; this year she certainly delivered it, with the most painful finale seen in recent times. But she was already a busted flush who should have gone after her election debacle.
This gathering displayed a decaying party in a harsh light made even less forgiving by the lack of diversity. One female academic told me in despair she had attended eight fringe events but seen no female panellists. If they must continue with these outdated events to fill their coffers, the Tories should replace the dreary main show with real debates and dynamic outside speakers. Instead, they preach localism but practise a form of centralised control that would make a Stalinist blush. No wonder the average age of the membership rises so rapidly.
Looming over everything was the dark shadow of Brexit and the duplicitous figure of Boris Johnson. This led to gloom among moderate and younger members. Many were lured to the party by David Cameron’s modernisation efforts. They can see how Brexit, with its crass nationalism and crude populism, fuels toxicity of the Tory brand with voters under 50. Why would generations raised in an open and diverse society align themselves with a party trying to turn back the clock? Some even talked, sotto voce, about the chances of a new, sensible party.
For Johnson this is just a jolly game of thrones. He sees himself as a latterday Churchill. But for those who, like him, revere the classics he is closer to Quintus Servilius Caepio the Elder, a self-aggrandising Roman opportunist who refused to obey his commander negotiating a peace treaty with Germanic tribes, started a pointless batter and ended up destroying his own side’s forces.
I have rarely heard such open contempt among cabinet ministers after they agreed a Brexit strategy, only for Johnson to devastate it with a disingenuous article in the Daily Telegraph. ‘He is like a petulant child having temper tantrums after a month out of the headlines,’ said one. Little wonder all the big beasts except Michael Gove boycotted his banal speech.
But he has momentum, not least because few alternatives are evident. The most obvious person to save the Tories is Ruth Davidson, the Scottish party leader who embodies modernisation, but she is not yet in Westminster. The young guns already there have yet to reach heights that might allow them to challenge him, and ageing party activists are unlikely to permit a remainer to complete their precious Brexit.
May should not continue dragging out the agony. So is it possible in these dire circumstances that the least worst option could be to allow Johnson to achieve the ambition corroding his soul? That may sound inadvisable, not least when he has once again proved his lack of judgment with a crack about Libyan corpses. But calling his bluff and making him wholly responsible for the Brexit he engineered might nonetheless have advantages.
As prime minister, Johnson would have to decide whether to carry on playing wrecking games or face up to the responsibility of being a politician whose words and actions determine the nation’s future. He could choose the disastrous route of hard Brexit, or grow up and deliver soft Brexit, free of serious foes on the right. Either way, he could not hide from the consequences of his actions.
It is a risky strategy because the country’s future is at stake, but if it paid off it might salve some of the wounds inflicted by that silly referendum. And if not, there is a chance Johnson would prove so divisive the wretched Brexit process simply disintegrated. Neither parliament nor business would support his current vision, and if he did not back down he would force remain MPs on all sides to start fighting for the national interest rather than their own careers.
The idea of seeing Johnson in Downing Street fills me with despair. But so too does the sight of a charlatan causing havoc and reaping the benefits. As prime minister, he would have no one to blame but himself.