I wonder if, when the ex-Iron Chancellor eventually ascends to that great No.11 in the sky, his headstone will read: ‘Gordon Brown – he agreed with Nick’? Ever since the inaugural 2010 Leaders’ Debate, it’s become obligatory for contenders in a party political contest to set out their respective stalls against each other for the electorate via the goggle-box, and there’s usually a specific moment that catches the electorate’s ear during a debate – even if, in the case of the Tory leadership pitches televised by BBC1 and Channel 4, most of us have no say in what happens next; these guys really are preaching exclusively to the converted. Yes, there was a Labour precedent three years ago when Owen Smith was pitted against Jeremy Corbyn in a ‘Question Time’ special as the former staged a hapless challenge to the latter’s leadership; but the number of participants in the Tories’ current competition has inevitably upped the ‘Apprentice’ ante, speaking a visual language familiar to the viewing public.
The first debate on Sunday served as a belated reminder of just how threadbare the Tory talent pool really is – and the contentious individual whose coronation seems a foregone conclusion didn’t even make an appearance. As entertainment, it was a bit like watching the political equivalent of one of those NME Poll Winners’ concerts from the mid-60s, albeit one in which The Beatles, Stones and Kinks had all pulled-out at the last minute, leaving the punters to make do with Freddie and the Dreamers, The Honeycombs and The Four Pennies (ask Paul Gambaccini). Deliberately leaving an empty lectern to emphasise the favourite’s no-show could have been even funnier had the director opted for a ‘HIGNFY’ Hattersley moment and placed a tub of lard on top of it; but the viewers probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference, anyway.
Of the inferior five who were helplessly hoping to chip away at Boris’s unassailable lead last Sunday, Dominic Raab reminds me of a wooden hunk from a daytime TV soap – the sort-of wife-cheating character who says things like ‘Ruth, I didn’t set out to hurt you’; whereas Jeremy Hunt resembles a smooth regional news magazine presenter, the kind the grannies always think is ‘lovely’. The strangely simian Rory Stewart looks like he’d be at his happiest playing in war games tournaments with his model soldiers, whilst I keep imagining Sajid Javid as a member of staff stationed on the aisles in Wilkos, the slightly gormless one a little over-eager to help when you can’t find where the loo rolls have been moved to. And then there’s the new pseudo-macho Michael Gove, who nevertheless never looks like anyone other than Michael Gove. God didn’t make two.
Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Where’s Boris?’ question halfway through the first debate was the first time any of the five mentioned the missing member, and the question almost sounded like a euphemism for an ill-timed fart, as though Hunt had accidentally released a Tommy Squeaker and used a Tory codeword to own-up; anyone whose father used to ask ‘Who’s let Polly out of prison?’ whenever a silent-but-deadly odour infected a car journey will get what I mean. Actually, maybe if the whole nation got into the habit of shouting ‘Where’s Boris?’ whenever a fart slipped out in company, the nation might become more of a One Nation in the process. But I think we’ve already passed that point now; we probably passed it when Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963.
The fact that such a tiny proportion of the electorate actually gets to vote in this particular contest leaves it a curiously meaningless spectacle for the rest of us – and on both the lectern incarnation and the Beeb’s ‘casual bar-stools’ version, it seemed as if the contestants were equally confused by their target audience. They each performed as they would during a General Election campaign, as though canvassing the entire nation for votes rather than the select few who’ll receive a ballot paper; moreover, the contenders often appeared to forget that in bemoaning the state of the nation they were actually trashing their own party’s record in government, not the opposition (despite Gove’s lone ‘Jezza-phobic’ howl). All emphasised the pitiful state of public services that many of them have been responsible for the pitiful state of, and all promised to wave a magic wand that all have kept well-hidden whilst endorsing the wrecking-ball that has helped make this country what it is over the past decade. Lest we forget, whoever gets the gig will inherit the same shambles that stitched-up their predecessor, so it’s not as if they can deliver any promises without a mandate of their own – and they’ll resist getting one for as long as they can because they’re terrified of calling a General Election they’re convinced they’ll lose.
The second debate dispensed with the first’s studio audience and instead had questions put by members of the public via a video screen; unfortunately, there was no moment comparable to that when a housewife riled Margaret Thatcher with an awkward inquiry about the Belgrano back on ‘Nationwide’ in 1983, though with one of the questions being put by a bearded chap representing a certain community, it was inevitable Emily Maitlis turned to Boris. Yes, with Raab the plank having been eliminated just a couple of hours before the BBC1 debate, his replacement was the man whose dominance in the first two ballots necessitated his appearance; I almost expected him to wait until the rest were assembled before descending to the stage on the zip-wire he famously hung from when promoting the 2012 London Olympics, but he didn’t, alas. The manner in which Boris’s propensity for putting his foot in it has been reduced by the simple tactic of turning him into Howard Hughes is certainly a bizarre approach for a man who will have nowhere to hide once he enters No.10. But Claudius finally has his chance to show a clown can become Caesar, and the luxury of mediocre competition means he can do so however he wants.
Viewing the BBC2 series on Margaret Thatcher these past few weeks has served as a reminder how politics used to be run by serious grownups; regardless of the still-divisive ideology at the heart of the Thatcher revolution – many elements of which remain open to question – there was at least a vision inherent in the rhetoric, even if its worst aspects are responsible for those vying for the top job in 2019. Had today’s template applied in the 1970s, the Tories would have been led by Sir Gerald Nabarro; Nabarro was the reactionary, racist buffoon with the handlebar moustache who had become a household name on account of the larger-than-life, comic toff he presented to the public. It’s fair to say he lacked certain qualities that were then regarded as essential to become a party leader. However, perhaps telling of the times, Nabarro’s character – midway between Jimmy Edwards and Colonel Blimp – was a complete fabrication, for he was actually the state-educated son of a shopkeeper. And that’s what would disqualify him today.
Acting out its existential crisis in public by presenting pitches to a public that cannot respond to them, the Conservative Party seems to be contradicting the stated aims of the leadership hopefuls to ‘bring the nation together’ by allowing us all to see how dysfunctional the party proposing to do so really is. In publicly attempting to outshine not opponents from other political parties, but fellow Tory MPs and (in most cases) Cabinet colleagues, the contenders underlined just how David Cameron’s suspension of collective responsibility in 2016 has now become the norm. But at least the Tories are an accurate barometer of the disunited kingdom as it currently stands rather than a source of optimism for an imaginary united future.
© The Editor
3 thoughts on “THE INFERIOR FIVE”
Far be it from me to defend the Tory Party, but it is a tad unfair to emphasise that the next prime minister will be selected only by the relatively small group that is their local party members. Have we forgotten when Tony Blair quit in 2007, leaving only the membership of the Labour Party to accede to Gordon Brown’s coronation?
We, the electorate, do not select party leaders, neither do we select prime ministers, we merely select local MPs, leaving it to them and their respective party mechanisms to identify a leader at any point in time.
If we accept the Tories’ method of short-listing to two contenders, who are then reduced to a winner by their national membership, it seems highly unlikely that anyone other than Boris will emerge from that process. If they wanted a genuine competition at that stage, or at the very least a Boris-stopper, maybe they should invite Nigel Farage to become one of those finalists as a ‘wild card’ – he’d win, of course, which is why it won’t happen. A mischievous thought though.
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For me, it’s more a question of why this particular beauty contest needs to be staged in public and presented in a manner that implies we all have a say in it, I guess. It’s more or less always been a behind-closed-doors process in the past.
Some say it’s just the ‘lefty’ broadcasters grabbing an opportunity to show-up the Tories – although they don’t really need any help from the BBC and Channel 4 to do that. The broadcasters argue that, by having those debates in public, the electors in any Tory-held seats can then badger their own MPs to vote for their preferred candidate, thus engaging the public in what would otherwise merely be a private, minority process.
I firmly believe that pigs can fly too . . . .
Strange how those channels thus purport to support democracy, yet they both try with every fibre of their power to overturn the result of the biggest democratic exercise this country has ever had. Funny old world.
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