As the candidates to become our next prime minister set out their stalls and whet their party members’ appetites with vague descriptions of who should get a tax cut, one can’t help feel as though the whole contest is pointless. There is only one item on the agenda about which the party’s members care: Brexit.
Of the candidates, the obvious choice is Rory Stewart. He is intelligent, respectful, erudite and well-travelled. He is a scholar who has walked through some of the most dangerous places in the Middle East, lectured on human rights at Harvard University and held ministerial roles in the British government. He has the right character and experience to be the country’s next premier.
Unlike other colleagues who appear regularly in the media, Stewart does not rely on a memorised series of lines and talking points provided by inner party workers. Just as rivals such as Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg benefit from coming across as unique individuals who can think and speak for themselves, so does Rory Stewart.
He is also willing to resign if he does not live up to his promises, something he vowed to do when prisons minister. Resigning for not doing a good enough job is something that politicians used to do; it would be good to have this honourable habit back.
Sadly Stewart hasn’t much hope of leading his party. He is not part of some of the influential factions within it. The party’s Thatcherites and libertarians, whose calls for the Conservative Party to be “conservative again” are getting louder, cannot make sense of someone who defines his politics without mentioning freedom, markets, taxes and the state; and he is too based in reality to appeal to the eccentrics who think that Theresa May is almost as left-wing as Jeremy Corbyn.
But for the membership and the higher-ups conscious of the Brexit Party, Stewart’s reservations about Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit, make him untenable. The membership is tired of a middle-of-the-road candidate who doesn’t really want to see Brexit through, but promises to try their best; instead, the members want someone who will stick it to the EU and “take back control”.
By all accounts, the frontrunner is Boris Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit in the referendum. Johnson and Stewart are very different individuals. As a journalist, Johnson wrote a number of stories that were liberal with the truth, one of them harming the career of his godfather, an academic, with a misquote about Edward II; as mayor of London, his vanity projects, such as the Garden Bridge, cost the taxpayer millions; and as foreign secretary, he embarrassed us around the globe, almost managing to extend, rather than reduce, British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s length of imprisonment in Iran.
Despite his track record, Johnson can be confident in his chances. He has been the Conservatives’ dream leader for months, even before he started sneaking political proposals into his Daily Telegraph column. He is popular with the public, meaning he could be the party’s best (only?) hope of an election. And, unlike Stewart, he’s been against the EU from the start: he was one of the major campaigners in the referendum, after all.
The Conservatives know that the Brexit Party will steal its votes unless it commits to taking us out of the EU. It also knows how unpopular its leading figures have become since the last general election. Thus, much like the Republicans overseas, the Conservative Party would rather be led by a popular fool than an educated, insightful, mature former governor: he’ll retain political power and see through the flagship policy, and that’s all that matters.
Brexit and popularity are the defining features of this leadership contest, just as they will be for the next general election. We are in danger of forgetting any of the domestic problems that a prime minister should be inspecting: food banks, crises in social care, mental health and the NHS. If we continue down this road, our democracy will be irreversibly weakened.