Britain needs a prole PM rather than another toff at the top
Later this month, the two potential futures of the Conservative Party will come face to face in Wembley Arena. On one side of the EU referendum debate will be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, of Eton and Balliol, a former president of the Oxford Union and editor of the Spectator, a creature of white-tied balls and society debs and the Bullingdon and the right dinner parties and the tonier kind of constituency association. On the other will be Ruth Elizabeth Davidson, an alumnus of Knowepark Primary, Buckhaven High and Edinburgh University, who grew up in Fife and swears like it, and who can sometimes be found on Twitter expertly debating which is the best brand of crisps.
Despite the differences in upbringing and milieu, the pair share a talent. Johnson twice delivered the London mayoralty to the Tories, despite that city’s Left-leaning tendencies, while Davidson seems to have pulled off the impossible and brought the party back from the dead in Scotland, where it now forms Holyrood’s official opposition. Both did so by dint of outsize, attractive personalities that make them more popular than the movement they represent, by following their own belligerent path, and by smartly positioning themselves as champions of a new, tolerant Tory liberalism that appeals to moderates across the spectrum. They’re both funny, too.
Some time soon, the Conservatives will be required to make a choice: a choice about what they want to be in the 21st century, about who they are for, and about how they communicate this to the country. The key moment will be when they install their next leader.
David Cameron, we know — because he has said so — will be gone by 2019 at the latest, and earlier if the UK votes to leave the EU against his wishes or if he is unseated by bitter Brexiteer backbenchers. The next PM will be a Tory, we know, because he or she will be chosen by party members on Cameron’s departure. The Tories will win the next general election, we know, because Labour will take a generation to recover from its current intellectual and moral collapse, if it ever does.
This is both good and bad for the Conservatives. Good because, having already governed for the past six years, they can look confidently ahead to a further lengthy period in office. This epic span of dominance means they can use the levers of government to effect real change in the country, to embed policies that will not be easily unpicked, to create a new status quo — in effect, to load the bases.
But the downside is this: there are many more Johnsons than there are Davidsons in the party. It is a natural home for those who as children were trained to reign in the turreted educational palaces of southern England, to never doubt their intellectual superiority, to effortlessly assume the mantle of power and never question their fitness to do so. These people are, in the psychological lingo, internally rather than externally referenced — that is, they don’t need anybody else to tell them how wonderful they are.
In a situation where they have untrammelled control of the country for the foreseeable future, they are likely to revert to type: the diffidence and dilettantism of privilege; the management of the machine rather than its reform; token gestures towards One Nationism when the focus groups tell them that’s what’s popular, rather than a relentless mission to bust out the poor from their prison of minimal opportunities and maximum obstructions. After all, where is their incentive to change The Way Things Are?
So here’s a thought: in these circumstances — which, remember, are the ones we actually find ourselves in — would you prefer a Boris or a Ruth in charge? Would you opt for someone who for reasons of family, wealth, schooling and conditioning was effectively born into the Conservative Party — who could probably never have been anything but a Tory — or someone who chose it for themselves, who had a go at life, thought hard and saw from the outside how the centre-Right could be used to improve the lot of those with less? Who is more likely to make a difference to those who rely on effective, principled government?
Usefully, the internally referenced are currently showing us how they roll. Freed from the necessity of indulging the Lib Dems, David Cameron and George Osborne seem quickly to have run out of revolutionary steam. They’ve eased off on the difficult and controversial education and welfare reforms that fired their early years in government (having lost the impassioned ministers responsible for those reforms). Osborne’s Budgets are now so complexly stretched and overtly political that they appear to snap apart within hours. With no coalition partner biting at their heels or Opposition worthy of the name, their incentive is merely to keep the show on the road — to reign.
The galactically wealthy Old Etonian Zac Goldsmith, who made his name as a thoughtful, decent moderate and environmentalist, found it disappointingly easy to jettison his moderate decency when campaigning for the London mayoralty, where he repeatedly let loose racist dog whistles against his (victorious) Muslim opponent. Boris Johnson, who had never once previously suggested Britain leave the EU, now leads the Brexit campaign with red-cheeked fervour, issuing blood-curdling warnings about immigrants (having previously been pro-immigration) and taking wild swipes at Cameron while blatantly sizing up the No 10 curtains. The obvious conclusion is that in the end, for all of them, it is first and foremost a game. Whatever happens, however badly things go, they will, in the end, be fine. As one low-born Tory friend put it to me, ‘for these guys it’s like the Pulp song Common People — they can sit in a bedsit with the rest of us but they can get up and walk out whenever they feel like it.’
This not a question of class war or even class envy — whatever their failings, the Tories clearly deserve to be in government. Their public sector reforms, built on those of the liberal Blair administration, have taken the country in the right direction. They have been broadly centrist, keeping us safe from the lunacy of Farage on the Right and Corbyn on the Left. Cameron has often been an impressive prime minister.
But now that change is looming, it’s important the next step is informed by what’s happening out there. The gates of the citadel are being rattled by messianic, self-styled radical leaders and empowered citizen mobs. There is growing resentment towards a governing caste that is seen as entitled, patronising, disconnected, arrogant and self-indulgent. There has to be a response to this revolt against the centre or it will only grow. And that response must be led by a figure with the moral authority, the character and the authenticity to be taken seriously.
When Cameron goes, he must be replaced by someone with real fire in their belly — someone for whom muscular, liberal centrism is not a useful positioning tactic but a core mission. It should be someone who understands working communities, who has personal experience of inequality, who has dirt under their fingernails, and who comes at the solutions with a Thatcher-like tenacity. Ruth Davidson is one such option, as is Stephen Crabb, the Work and Pensions Secretary who has overcome quite astonishing odds to rise to high office. Let me put in bluntly — Boris is not the answer. Our next prime minister should be a prole rather than a toff.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 6, 2016