24 June 2019

Boris Johnson, not Rory Stewart, is the real Tory insurgent

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Insurgencies, so the wisdom goes, are easy to make and hard to finish. So, it’s difficult to resist admiring the unlikely tactical genius of a man who has radicalised the Conservative Party leadership race. I’m speaking here of the blonde belligerent himself, Boris Johnson.

Some mistake, surely? Most people believe that Rory Stewart, my preferred candidate in this and any future contest for Number 10, wears that crown for so memorably disrupting Johnson’s passage to glory. In fact, Stewart’s appeal – and ultimately his Achilles Heel was that he articulated centre ground Conservative values – moderation, prudence and pragmatism to a selectorate of MPs deafened by fear.

Boris Johnson, or his handlers at least, identified these fears and weaponised them. It’s a familiar ingredient in the creation of any insurgency, political or otherwise.

What fears? Let me count the ways. Fear of being on the wrong side of history, fear of never being promoted beyond lobby fodder, fear of being deselected by Brexit infiltrators in their constituencies, fear of being crushed in Leave seats in any election and, somewhere down the list, fear of any compromise that could let in the country’s first antisemite led Marxist Government.

Insurgencies need a few other factors for success too – a narrative of grievance is essential so a thwarted Brexit is a godsend to those who peddle in or are suggestible to simplistic messages. Leadership and clear objectives are paramount. Leaving the EU by the 31st of October ‘come what may’ is powerfully suggestive to those MPs and members who, fed up with the pallid dissembling of the ‘surrender monkeys’ still installed in Number 10 long for the disruption of clarity.

Boris is a straight shooter holding a gun to his head. That this clarion call of ‘Halloween Brexit or Bust’ is from a man who finds it hard to be true to the end of a paragraph, let alone a Parliament makes no difference. The asterisks in every pronouncement fall uselessly on the heads of the faithful.

Insurgency also relies on the use of environment, phasing and timing. In this too, the Johnsonite irregulars have outmanoeuvred the opposition – a motley crew of Remainers, feminists, traditional media and Tories aghast at his content-free ascendancy. Throughout this campaign Johnson has conspicuously avoided the limelight. When you’re all hat and no cattle, the last thing you do is throw open the gates to your ranch.

His guerrillas hid him in the mist, correctly assuming that forensic examination of his character and record would do him more damage than good as momentum gathered. Any defence of his integrity was rather cynically outsourced to two female lieutenants, Priti Patel and Liz Truss, both eviscerated in excruciating encounters with the media. That’s one hell of a Faustian pact. I hope it delivers for them, for the sake of their reputations.

We probably won’t ever know whether or to what extent tactical voting helped this insurgent campaign assassinate the Emperor’s main threat, Michael Gove, but considering the institutional treachery of the modern Conservative Party, it’s surely naive to think it wasn’t at least considered.

I’ve said before that MPs deciding this contest have been forced into bleak consecutive triangulation of self-interest, country and conscience. Are we supposed to believe there are none who could be persuaded to allow their votes to be lent (or bent) to thin the pack in pursuit of any or all of the above? Come on.

The monster of empty populism is not battering against the doors of the Conservative citadel, it has always been inside the castle, lying dormant, waiting for its time to be born. Rory Stewart, far from running an insurgency has been raising the standard for an authentic One Nation Conservatism that election winners as unalike as John Major and David Cameron have used to build majorities.

Remember Major’s soapbox? Stewart’s reprise, going against the grain and walking the length of the country to have conversations with ordinary voters showed a yearning, even a desperation for compromise, decency and realism from a radical centre. With Johnson projected to power the risk is that the bluster, insouciance and aggressive optimism collapses like a badly made soufflé in the face of an undeliverable Brexit, enabling the catastrophe of a Corbyn-led government.

And what cost a no-deal ‘victory’ anyway? The unravelling of the one Union that really matters to people regardless of political affiliation or geography? The distance between United and Untied Kingdom is dangerously thin as it is. The counter-insurgents in Vietnam lost the war when they lost contact with their environment. One senior US officer memorably justified such scorched earth tactics saying that ‘in order to save a town it became necessary to destroy it.’

Ironically, there are plenty of people in the right of the Conservative Party supporting Boris Johnson who seem quite at home with the political and constitutional corollary. Those of us remaining who think their front runner is no answer to any of the serious questions plaguing our United Kingdom must disappear into the hills, regroup, draw new support and be ready for the next campaign. It won’t be long coming.

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Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.