The Tory tragedy may grow deeper

Published by The i paper (3rd June, 2019)

Matt Hancock loves to talk about technology. He has used a little knowledge on the subject to go a very long way, coasting through two cabinet posts on the basis he launched a smartphone app. Now as the youngest candidate in the Tory leadership contest, the health secretary has stepped up his geek talk to underscore his claim to represent the party’s future. ‘I’m delighted that lots of other people have joined my enthusiasm for modern technology. I look forward to when one of them gets an app of their own,’ he told one Sunday newspaper.

But while he may have some understanding of software, he has shown himself to be embarrassingly gauche on social media. First he banged on about waffles and cuddled dogs yet ignored a barrage of reports exposing cruelty towards people with autism and learning disabilities. Then came a toe-curling video of him batting and bowling in his office to celebrate the Cricket World Cup, sparking a ferocious response from furious patients and comparisons to Ricky Gervais’s absurdist character David Brent. So he was caught out: all spin, no substance.

Some candidates blossom and others wilt in the glare of an electoral spotlight. The early breakout star is Rory Stewart, a substantial figure offering authenticity and winning some heavyweight support over the weekend. Tellingly, he issued a video saying he would make adult social care the focus of his leadership if elected just as Hancock, who has ignored such issues, showed off his office cricket skills. Meanwhile Boris Johnson won the backing of a bombastic, sexist and racist liar in the White House as Jeremy Hunt flip-flopped, Sajid Javid floundered, Dominic Raab disavowed feminism and Michael Gove displayed silky political finesse.

The core issue is, of course, Brexit. Yet most candidates spew bilge on this issue, pretending they can shape reality while only showing they have learned so little about why voters lost faith in Westminster. They can talk about renegotiations, discuss no deal, conjure up a five-point plan or propose a citizens assembly – but they cannot change political truths that makes these ideas pure fantasy. There are two choices: a fresh election, which no Tory wants, or asking voters to find a way through this appalling mess that their bickering party inflicted on Britain.

So it is good to see former universities minister Sam Gyimah join the contest to fly the flag for a second referendum, saying ‘if we want to govern in the interests of the country, this is an option we have to consider seriously.’ He is right. But this is a brave move – not least when Phillip Lee, the first minister to resign over Brexit, has just lost a no confidence vote in his Essex constituency after backing another vote. Gyimah offers a reminder with his Quixotic tilt at Downing Street that his party used to be patriotic and pragmatic – and as the third ethnic minority candidate in a field of 13, also underlines how the Tories once cared about reaching out to new voters.

Now they care only about survival. They are impaled on their Brexit hook, buffeted by polls showing they are sliding behind Nigel Farage’s latest party and the Liberal Democrats. The panic may grow this week after the Peterborough by-election. The two mainstream parties have poor candidates, confused platforms and look jaded, leaving the Brexit Party favourite to win. If Farage does triumph, this will serve as a metaphor for our shattered politics: voters flocking to back a force that stands only for fury at Westminster without the faintest idea of its position on other policies or caring that its slippery leader keeps shifting his views.

This is fast becoming a Tory tragedy. As the party twists in storms that it unleashed by foolishly attempting to appease nationalism, it is forced further into existential crisis. Its leading lights talk endlessly of Brexit, which repels huge chunks of the electorate and many funders – but offer no real solutions, which deters many other voters. Meanwhile the leadership favourite is a buffoon who proved inept in office and has shown contempt for business. And the only policies proposed by key rivals are regressive tax cuts, which serve to remind voters of the party’s failure to escape the shadow of Margaret Thatcher and offer nothing to solve pressing issues in schools, social care, housing and hospitals.

Bear in mind we are still only stumbling around the Brexit foothills. So why does someone speaking the truth such as Gyimah, or a candidate talking about serious concerns such as Stewart, have little hope of triumph? Simple. Because the next party leader, and our prime minister, will be picked by a shrinking band of largely-elderly Tory activists, many of whom were seduced by the simplistic populism of the Brexit Party in last month’s euro election.

So the party panders to hardline activists, shifts further right and will, almost inevitably, end up repulsing even more young, female, metropolitan and ethnic minority voters. It is like a form of political torture – and bizarrely, it is being mirrored on the left under Labour’s dismal leader.

A leadership election should offer hope of rejuvenation. But Brexit has devastated our nation and deformed our politics, so this battle only underlines the depth of Conservative crisis. The recent Spanish election shows what happens when a mainstream conservative party shifts right to fight populists – less than a year after being in power the Popular Party suffered crushing defeat, losing more than half its seats as it bled votes on both flanks. Politics has become more complex, more fluid and more fragmented. The Tories, having lost sight of their values, look increasingly like a party that is out of time, out of tune and running out of steam.

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