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21st Jun 2019

Will anyone survive the leap of faith that is the Tory leadership contest?

Dion Fanning

The problem with Brexit is that reality keeps on breaking through

No sooner had former Army officer and Conservative MP Bob Stewart announced that, in the fantasy combat scenario he’d dreamed up in his head, Boris Johnson was the man he’d trust to lead a platoon into battle than the reality of a conflict situation presented itself to another Tory MP, Mark Field.

Fantasy versus reality is an increasing problem for Brexit and the Conservative Party.  And here was reality intruding again as Field aggressively manhandled a female climate change protester and revealed what the world looks like to the people who will now decide the fate of Britain and Ireland too.

No wonder so many of them have taken such comfort in ongoing and widespread fantasies, from technological solutions on the border to a no-deal being painless and even something to embrace.

Fantasy is preferable when the real world is full of hazards that can threaten the sanguine existence of any Tory MP at any time and, more importantly make the lives of those in their orbit so unpleasant.

Bob Stewart was soon out defending Field on the basis that the protestor could have been a suicide bomber. “She might have a belt of explosives on her, she might have a weapon, she might try to do something.”

Field – a Jeremy Hunt supporter – has been suspended as a minister for his actions. It had come on the day he had been part of the ‘most sophisticated electorate in the world’ which had made the decision that the politician who should now try and deliver Brexit as prime minister is either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt.

This idea of this electorate’s sophistication is hard to reconcile with the knowledge that Mark Francois has a vote. If this is sophistication, it’s not quite Don Draper ordering an Old Fashioned and lighting up a Lucky Strike as he embarks on a seduction.

Johnson, for many Tories, is their Don Draper and he will head to the shires as the unstoppable favourite, even if there are many questions trailing him or, as Bob Stewart put it, “In the past people have accused him of philandering with people… with obviously ladies”.

By Friday evening, Johnson too was having difficult with reality as the Guardian reported the row at his girlfriend’s flat on Thursday night.

If that past was a different country, it is one they think they can return to. The future is more uncertain, especially as the Tories are in the grip of the fever of nationalism, which comes with its own nostalgia kick.

If there was any doubt that nationalism is a malignant disease which persuades the sufferer their strain is benign, the YouGov poll of Tory party members should have erased it.

There was almost no price too high for the achievement of this vision of English nationalism, although at this stage it may be a vision of Tory nationalism, with all concern and care for those not inside that deranged and crazy tent discarded.

Few things could shake their belief that this ongoing act of self-destruction for their country was worth it, something that has been reflected in the Tory leadership contest which, with one exception, consisted of candidates unwilling to offer leadership, if leadership is the low bar of acknowledging there is a real world and even members of the Conservative party have to live in it occasionally.

In the other world, 61 per cent of Tory members would rather Brexit took place even if it resulted in significant damage to the economy, but only 39 per cent would want it to take place if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister.

That figure might have been higher if Corbyn wasn’t so intent on pushing Brexit through himself. In that regard, he could be said to be sound on the national question, if very unsound on so many other questions relating to their lives.

Again this allowed us to glimpse one of the great lies of Brexit. The 61 per cent who wanted Brexit even if it resulted in significant damage for the economy may have felt confident that the significant damage would be felt by other people, perhaps a Nissan worker in Sunderland or someone at the Ford plant in Wales rather than a typical member of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Corbyn, on the other hand, would damage their own personal economies and nothing, not even Brexit, was worth that. If they are treating Brexit as an internal Tory party problem, Corbyn’s passivity will have done nothing to alter that point of view. Brexit began as a way of solving a Tory problem and it has never veered off that course, even as they pursue it to the gates of hell.

As the candidates for leader made their case, they all engaged with versions of this fantasy with the exception of Rory Stewart, who departed the contest on Wednesday with one commentator saying the MPs have “had their fun with him”.

In Stewart’s case, it seemed to be considered fun that there would be a leader of the party – and prime minister – who might stress things as they could be in the real world, or at least the version an Old Etonian is doing his best to imagine, rather than how they might be seen on The Big Rock Candy mountain.

Stewart lasted longer than some expected, surviving after the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab had left the race. Raab can now add the Conservative Party’s leadership race to the list of things that confuses him.

Raab had talked tough with his promise to abandon parliamentary democracy itself if that was what it took to return power from Brussels to Westminster, but he had always appeared to be frustrated during the debates, a man of action surrounded by talkers. 

He would surely have hoped to hang on until a stage of the race where they stopped theorising and started doing. Perhaps he had hoped that somehow the debates would turn into an arm wrestle or a drinking game which would culminate in all the candidates bellowing, ‘Crouch, touch, engage’ and scrummaging on the floor. With that done, they could envelope each other in manly hugs – a reminder that all these guys are on the same side – before pissing in the pint glass of an unsuspecting member of the public. Or what we might call, a no-deal Brexit.

It is hard to know who can save us from the worst of the Tory party now. One of Hunt’s failed business ventures was an attempt to sell marmalade to Japan so he could be said to be well placed for the Brexit disappointments that lie ahead.

The best thing that can be said about Johnson is that he believes in nothing at a time when fanaticism has taken hold. The worst thing that can be said about Johnson is that he believes in nothing at a time when fanaticism has taken hold.

He might happily assume command of the battalion Bob Stewart imagines and he might tell them where to go, but Johnson wouldn’t lead them, no more than he would give a straight answer to the questions that surround him. The idea that he can survive the five weeks of this stage of the campaign might be the greatest fantasy of all.

The Conservatives need somebody to point out the folly of the Brexit fantasy, but if they do they are seen as whimsical, a lighthearted interlude to be tolerated for a time, or a traitor intent on sabotage, who might try to soothe the fever.

They are now done with these interruptions, even if reality keeps disturbing the fantasy. Who will stop them now as they march intently to the cliff edge, peer over it and then insist confidently that they can fly?