With the structure of the new European Commission taking shape and anxieties as heightened as ever about the UK’s place in a rapidly evolving Europe, Jeremy Hunt has animated the country with a suggestion to legalise fox hunting, a day after Boris Johnson captivated us all with a defence of confectionery. Johnson’s task as prospective Prime Minister is not to enter too deeply into arguments about policy or, worse, detail. Keeping the state of the race largely as it is will see his chosen opposition of Jeremy Hunt stay at a nice distance in the rear view mirror. Nothing much has been said about the German defence minister and new Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, whose opaque election serves as a reminder of why we voted to leave this ghastly political union in the first place. The sugar tax and fox hunting issues are microcosms of an argument within the party, as far as those outside can tell: whether it is the proper role of government to guide its citizens towards better, healthier, or more moral choices, or whether this is a matter for individuals. In leaning towards the libertarian principle over the temptation towards moral sanctions, both are orienting themselves for some departure from their predecessor.
Notably, an already unpopular Theresa May wasted quickly diminishing political capital on a bill to restrict access to online pornography by requiring a porn pass or credit card. Naturally, the libertarians in her party threw a tantrum at their right to leer at digital tiddies being threatened. Perhaps this vicar’s daughter simply wanted to do what was right and had given up on serious governance of her own party. It will be a typical footnote of the May era: morally sensible, technically illiterate, and politically DOA. So the new Prime Minister will need to play more intelligently to the Tory gallery, a constituency rooted no longer in conservatism. Mr Johnson is clearly no authority figure on sexual, or any other morality. Meanwhile, Mr Hunt has already glimpsed the nature of the membership’s liberal tendency when he reversed his position on reducing the abortion limit to twelve weeks. The bloc that contentedly watched Hunt destroy the government’s relations with the country’s medical staff screeched into condemnation when he went soft on unborn children. Still, he regretted during the Channel 4 debate that he didn’t explain his NHS reforms well enough. There was no suggestion that a preparation to listen on his part may have helped matters.
Still, a relative steadiness is Hunt’s pitch. Hunt is The Entrepreneur. The Conservative party, having long given up caring about conserving things, has in recent years rather too proudly styled itself as the party of business, and the rump of the party that doesn’t want to, um, four letter word it may be persuaded. To be a businessperson is in some ways laudable, but it isn’t a ticket to run the country. Indeed, Hunt’s answer in the BBC debate to a lady concerned about her husband’s job after a no deal exit was that her husband should know the importance of keeping walking away as an option. This temptation to extrapolate tactics local to small-scale negotiation scenarios, where a small businessperson may have nothing to lose and plenty of alternatives in a plentiful market, to an unprecedented position of standing to lose decades of trade facilitation with our neighbours is all too common. The only candidate with the courage to call this incredible, unthinking strategy for what it is was Rory Stewart, to much squawking from his opponents.
This isn’t conservatism. Going for WTO may be radical and rightly controversial, as conservatism should be, but it exists as a strange attachment on the British right in place of recognisable conservatism. Whereas leading parties in Italy, Poland, and elsewhere generate fierce debate by placing life and family issues, and in some cases religion, at the centre of their philosophies, the signature of what passes for conservatism in Britain is going postal whenever someone speaks up for a softer Brexit. A hard Brexit isn’t going to help families form, grow, and stabilise into strong communities, but the so-called right of the Tory party clings to it. A conservative party wouldn’t deliberately jeopardise the Union, with 63% of Conservatives preferring to see Scotland leave the Union than halt Brexit, according to a recent YouGov poll.
The hard Brexit outrage machine survives by always remaining some distance from the Brexit position of the government or establishment. Initially this was benign: proposing withdrawal from the European Union was credible in itself, and an intelligent means of gently pulling the Overton window towards broader Euroscepticism to the point that a referendum was government policy. When the referendum forced Brexit onto the government’s agenda, it was no longer enough to be okayish with the single market. Brexit was no longer shorthand for ‘leaving the European Union’; it was an ideal in regular evolution. Leaving the EU for EFTA was leaving the European Union, but it wasn’t Brexit. Then when the government decided for no good reason that Brexit meant leaving the single market, Canada became the new standard for Brexit which, by the way, wasn’t being done quickly enough. Three fumbled years later and Brexit is WTO or bust. Should Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt go for no deal, the Brexit acceptability window will need to shift away again, perhaps to withdrawal from the WTO.
As WTO develops into common language, it is worth understanding the mentality behind it as much as the legal and trading implications, which tend to be unsurprisingly messy. It is difficult to make apologetics for May’s Withdrawal Agreement, with 11% of the population deeming it a good outcome in a recent YouGov poll, doing a better job than anything else in uniting both leavers and remainers in animosity. It survives only in contrast to no deal and remaining, both rightly unacceptable to the government. However, the broader principles of agreeing some manner of deal, and of taking a little time over it, are equally hated. To hesitate is treachery. It is as if Neil Armstrong were branded a traitor to the cause of space exploration for waiting until NASA nerds developed a workable spacecraft. If Mr Armstrong didn’t agree to be immediately catapulted without a spacesuit to the moon and smash at hundreds of miles per hour onto its surface, he didn’t really want to leave Earth at all.
Stroppy as it is, this feeling is powerful, and if it isn’t provided by the Conservative Party the Brexit Party has it in abundance. So Sajid Javid’s claim that you don’t beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party is unlikely to be obeyed by the next Prime Minister, prepared to opt for no deal rather than confront a tricky electorate. It can be boiled down to a cowardice to tell voters what they wouldn’t like to hear. Politicians are expected to do what the people tell them to do, such is the approximate idea of democracy, but the conversation should be two way. One of the disappointments of the race was how quickly Sam Gyimah’s campaign folded, taking with it its unique selling point of a second referendum. The policy was wrong, but Conservatives need to confront the growing appetite for a so called People’s Vote more than they have proven willing to do so far. There has been minimal input, invited or submitted, from the public at large since the 2016 referendum. Events have been shaped by the composition of Parliament, the positions of the EU, and calculations as to what the electorate might like. There is a scattering of opinions every week in the Question Time audience, including the ever-present inanity screaming for politicians to get together, stop bickering, and sort it all out.
Even if he cannot sort it all out, Boris Johnson is excellent at affecting a Clintonesque charm that, with enough camaraderie and confidence, he can. Depending on which bookmakers you believe, he has around an 85% chance of entering Number Ten. Focus should be inquisitive and unforgiving on how he will achieve a deal where Theresa May failed, if or how he could mitigate the consequences of, in his terms, a ‘chaotic’ Brexit, and what he’ll do if Brexit is again delayed. Instead he avoids answers to these types of questions, and the little time he graciously gave the media to questioning was wasted on his politically colourful oratory and writing in the past. A country that, in the face of a man apparently ready to dissolve trading relations with the EU overnight, asks about burqas looking like pillar boxes – an accurate and merited ridicule of this horrible garment – deserves everything it gets from no deal. An occasional detour into comically expressed honesty may be one of the man’s redeeming qualities, but it won’t persuade the EU to drop the backstop. The party has done no better than the wider media with a series of hustings, aimed at and with questions from the Tory membership, adding little lucidity to the final two candidates’ substantial plans. Instead, while the US Democrats – with an equally dispiriting field – arranged a debate specifically on climate change, the topic claimed ten minutes in the BBC debate. There was no time to press Boris Johnson on his spectacular flip-flopping on a third runway at Heathrow. Conservative party members and the wider country are, or should be, entitled to more than small segments for candidates to chip in with generalities, left to guess which of the fifty shades of Boris they can expect to get in Number Ten.
Still, to trouble ourselves with runways and politically incorrect remarks is to rearrange proverbial deckchairs in the midst of Brexit. No candidate has proven able to solve the paradox at the centre of an argument between Rory Stewart and Michael Gove: that the deal cannot change in Brussels, and an unchanged deal cannot pass Parliament. With no serious proposals forthcoming from the candidates on how to converge the UK’s and EU’s red lines, the government looks to continue as a passenger in events until circumstances take charge, either with a no deal exit or another offered extension. The present extension was offered in May on the assumption that the country would get its house in order and decide perhaps on a new position. It may be true that a change of leader was a requisite for this to take place. Nothing has arisen from this process to suggest that the party is using this opportunity to take this awesome constitutional moment seriously. Barring a miracle, a no deal Brexit will result, and the shambolic, unconservative mess we call the Tory Party will deserve everything coming its way.