I am no Tory. I have never voted as such, nor written favourably of any one or number of the party’s parliamentarians. The Conservative Party, recently described by the Economist as ‘the natural party of government’, has indefensibly tethered itself to a doctrine of austerity politics which has, as a recent UN report details, ‘entrenched racism’ and inflicted ‘great misery’ upon swathes of citizens. Wholeheartedly, the Tories have cultivated a spurious and self-effacing nationalism, placing party above country and embracing Ukipian Euroscepticism as a fount of legitimacy, in lieu of a waning reputation for competent and humane economic governance.
The Party’s evacuation of the centre-right and increasing dependence upon nationalist legitimacy is emblematised, to the point of caricature, by Tory leadership candidate and Prime Ministerial shoo-in Boris Johnson, whose careerist and calamitous politics I discussed in a recent ramble.
Boris Johnson and the Scarcity of Scrutiny reveals a poisonous politics. Elevated by a landslide victory in a ballot amongst Tory MPs last week, team Johnson have seen to it that the blundering former Foreign Secretary has been shielded from public scrutiny. Tellingly, a Channel 4 debate podium stood vacant yesterday evening as 5 other leadership candidates tussled for the limelight. The race’s front-runner, meanwhile, reportedly tucked into a takeaway.
Mr. Johnson has advanced pernicious policy through the medium of bad politics. His recent retreat from the public eye bookends a rise to the cusp of the Premiership which began as extroverted, during his stint as a loud champion of the Leave Campaign.
The essence of today’s leadership election: a bounded contest between an assortment of disagreeable positions from which other parties are prohibited, means we must inevitably turn to other measures of competence besides policy. Indeed, it is the dire substance of a debate captured by Brexit which has deflected much attention to the manner in which it’s being conducted.
Former Prisons Minister and current Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart has reaped much from an emerging policy-politics binary that has drawn attention to the conduct of politics. A dark horse relative to Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid – household names, the son of Hong Kong diplomat Brian Stewart has surged in some polls in recent days to second place as leadership favourite.
Naturally, Stewart’s lack of baggage relative to some of his former and current cabinet colleagues goes some way towards accounting for his good showing. It is also, perhaps, why he has been able to engage in a remarkably public grassroots campaign. #RoryWalks has seen the former army officer, diplomat and tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry set up shop in town squares, public parks and street corners around the country, where he has proceeded to discuss, disagree and debate with locals.
Stewart’s frank transparency, often memeworthy, has fostered a sense of human fallibility and distinctiveness amidst a field of candidates who struggled when prompted at last night’s debate to undertake self-criticism and name their fatal flaw. Such efforts have given credence to Mr. Stewart’s effort to position himself as a sincere realist amidst a contest populated by ‘macho’ bombast.
Stewart’s public politics has met a demand for visibility and local engagement which has been found wanting in Mr. Johnson’s politics of evasion – and indeed in politics more broadly. It is the latter mode of politics which undergirds the dislocation responsible for the prevailing sense of West(minster) v rest which pervades much of the North, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and most localities outside London, and which will be in dire need of rectification, post-Brexit.
Fellow Labour supporters are often too quick to censure those who find merit in the good politics of an opponent. Tweets conveying favour for the unexpectedly grassroot and effective public politics of Rory Stewart are frequently denounced as ‘centrist’. More often, Mr. Stewart’s voting record is deployed towards undermining any potential lesson we might hope to glean from the candidate’s success hitherto. This is to conflate policy with politics, or at least with a certain medium for the conduct of politics. It is also a misstep which risks imaging Labour as insular and neglectful, as the Brexit Party machinates to seize the ear of local voices.
I would not go as far as to endorse any Conservative candidate for Prime Minister: it’s clear that the present contest is for the captain of a stricken Titanic piloted to peril by the recklessness of its own crew. But bad policy does not necessarily equal bad politics. In the months and years ahead, it will be the charge of politicians to stitch back together fragments of a deeply divided society wrecked by years of social, economic and political dislocation. Boris Johnson’s politics of evasion offers no remedy but is, in fact, a root cause of our current crisis. The way forward for a country teeming with long-neglected voices yearning for recognition can no longer be the politics of indifference. In this regard, I hold no reservations in commending the peculiar politics of Rory Stewart.