12 June 2019

Conservatives – and the country – deserve better than Boris versus Not Boris

By

One of the reasons I’m backing Rory Stewart’s pitch for Conservative leader is he’s a man who will cross the street for a conversation. No other contender has to date done anything like it, creating real unscripted encounters with a battered and perplexed electorate up and down our country — to be challenged, to persuade, to give politics the human face it so desperately lacks right now.

The reaction tells you much about the state of the Conservative party and the Zone 1 commentariat. With a few exceptions, his risky and revealing expeditions have been treated as an amusing indulgence. Bakelite campaigning in the digital age of likes and retweets. When the big guns need a boost they call for Lynton Crosby, not Heath Robinson.

Stewart’s excellent example should not even be called brave and I’m sure he’d recoil at the thought. The idea that good politics is built on and survives by a visceral accessible relationship with the citizen, honing the instincts, curtailing the hubris is vanquished. John Major’s soapbox has been put away for fear of Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’.

Instead we are treated to a series of painfully scripted (sorry Esther) launch events replete with dad dance music and personalised snacks. Contestants are then forced by journalists to play a hellish game of “my Dad’s bigger than yours” on everything from their fiscal hardness to their approach to mythical re-negotiation with Brussels. Or in Michael Gove’s case endure an endless re-runs of that just-about-managing family favourite, “Troubles with Charlie”.

This studied insulation is bad for politics and might yet be disastrous for the Conservative party and the country.

We are not in a good place. The constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom is fraying. Austerity has planed the state back to a point where degrading choices have to be made by those both delivering and receiving slashed public services. Precarious employment, as bad as it is for families and communities is likely to be destroyed by a wave of robotics and new technology we aren’t invested in or training for. Rapacious private sector monopolies have cornered the market and screwed the consumer. Violent and organised crime is on the front foot.

Who is in charge of the Conservative party matters because he or she will be in Downing Street and that person must be serious about and capable of fixing the underlying ills that Brexit has merely exposed.

All the more reason that we should expose all those now looking to take on this task to the maximum amount of forensic scrutiny. Character is important. Seriousness of purpose and attention to detail is crucial. Performing well under fire is just a dress-rehearsal for what lies ahead. We cannot afford to get this one wrong.

Is it right then that in the first instance, we leave the winnowing of the field of candidates down to Conservative MPs, many of whom will be earnestly triangulating their future careers, their conscience and their constituents in the decision making? I don’t think so. The much maligned 120,000 members of the party – I’m one of them – ought to step in to play a part in the initial husting process and the vote. We need a closed primary.

The Conservative party has used primaries in the past to elect candidates so this is not as much of a reach as might first be imagined. In 2009, the party held Britain’s first open primary to select its candidate for the seat of Totnes. Sarah Wollaston, who went on to win it and the seat, might not be a poster girl for party loyalty but her rivals understood an important truth, when you’re pitching to citizens, political point scoring comes a poor second to ideas, pragmatism and integrity.

We won’t get an open primary for Tory leader of course. This is party business. But in this election party is country and the country is tanking. So why not allow a representative panel of the party membership access to all nominated candidates in a publicly broadcast debate? How about an event co-chaired by Andrew Neill and Emma Barnett?

It has irritated me that the membership has long since been accepted by commentators as somehow the property of Boris Johnson and will simply step in to complete the formalities on his most recent (and so far silent) rise to glory.

The membership is far more diverse than it is given credit for. If it has been recently infiltrated from parties to the right, as has been alleged, there would be simple ways of controlling that to get an authentic cross-section of members who, divested of any skin in the game except keeping a Marxist out of Number 10, could cross-examine and pass judgement on the wider field. Perhaps setting out their preference in a non-binding ballot.

The 1922 committee who run these contests must surely have the last unhappy coronation in mind as they prepare the next. As the votes amongst MPs roll on, the public will look at the dismal choreography of one dead campaign folding into another and the retrofitting of loyalties with the disdain it deserves. Why not outsource at least some of the responsibility to the local organisations who have put them in Westminster in the first place?

It’s probably too late though. This contest between Blues will be run on the same lines as that which delivered us Theresa May at a time of great national upheaval and expectation. In the boat race, the advantage lies with taking the inside bends. It’s wrong and dangerous that the rules are gamed in favour of a Boris or Not Boris outcome leaving other worthy candidates in the shallows struggling for purchase.

We need a proper chance to scrutinise all candidates because this task is too big for 313 Conservative MPs. And getting it wrong again might destroy a party built on its members. This is nation building. Democratise or die.

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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, in 2016.