Boris Johnson MP
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, Rory Stewart MP
Rupert Myers is a barrister and writer.
Reports of the death of liberal conservatism are greatly exaggerated, but after the departure of the once ultra-loyal Rory Stewart you would be forgiven for checking its pulse. Only months ago, he was alone in TV studios defending Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the face of widespread hostility, but watching the MP for Penrith and the Border walk away from the party to stand as an independent candidate for London Mayor should not serve as a reason for politically sympathetic party members to follow suit.
As a former Association Deputy Chairman and local Conservative candidate, many of my friends are asking me whether I’m staying with the Party. I am, and if you’re reading this wondering if you should leave, I hope that you can also be persuaded to remain.
Stewart’s circumstances are unique: there is a particular opportunity in London to remove a Mayor who is failing Londoners, a Mayor who has overseen a city mired in a violence that, like many Londoners, I know only too well: two months ago I was woken in the night by the screams from a triple stabbing on my road in zone one.
Around the city, young people are losing their lives to a set of complex problems that require fresh solutions. It’s an uncomfortable truth for the Conservatives but, on current form, Shaun Bailey’s campaign is unlikely to unseat Sadiq Khan. On the biggest issue in politics for a generation, Bailey is largely silent, seemingly unable to articulate support for a Brexit he supports but which the capital certainly does not.
Stewaer has shown himself to be an eloquent and sincere politician who reaches beyond traditional party political lines. He has already made it clear that he will attack Khan’s record on crime while championing the city against the dreadful risks of a No Deal Brexit. His skills are ones which we can but hope are one day brought back into the fold, but his current fight is distinct from the choices facing individual members.
Those of us alarmed at the ejection from the Party of heroes like Ken Clarke may be worrying that the tent poles of the right-of-centre coalition are falling in, but there are three compelling reasons to stay.
The first is that something has to give. If there has been one pressure on centre-right activists in the party, it has of course been Brexit. Whisper it, but almost 40 per cent of conservatives, the majority of Conservative MPs, and every Tory Prime Minister before Boris Johnson backed Remain, yet the speed with which these facts have been conveniently forgotten could give you whiplash.
Gradually, and then suddenly the party has gone from being a place where division on Europe was tolerated when the Eurosceptics were in the minority, to a place where almost no dissent is accepted. If you feel frozen out by this transition, keep faith. Do not mistake the current intolerance of pro-European voices for power: it is a sign of the brittle fragility of a current leadership which inherited a gargantuan mess, and which is running out of options fast. A Party that changed so quickly after the referendum can change again.
It is inevitable that Johnson, who tethered his chariot so successfully to the Brexit cause, will do anything and everything to get it done. Not only is Brexit the issue around which he defined his candidacy and staked his leadership, but it is understandable that any leader would want to rapidly find a way to move forwards from the most divisive and toxic argument in British politics. This current uncertainty has been shown not only to be harmful to business, but even to be detrimental to our mental health.
Time is against the Prime Minister, with polls showing that support for remaining in the European Union is now solidly ahead of leaving. The same people who demand that the will of the people is respected will now do anything they can to prevent the people from expressing an updated sentiment, but their efforts may well not be enough. Either way, once Brexit is carried out or abandoned, there will be much good work for the Conservative Party to do.
The second reason to remain inside the tent is that, short of switching from the Today Programme to Radio Three, ending your news subscriptions, and taking up butterfly collecting, if you remain interested and active in politics then you have to take a side. There is simply no other Party today that is worried about the encroaching size of the state, passionate about building ladders to freedom and opportunity, that eschews high political theorising for empirical pragmatism, and that places trust and responsibility in the hands of individuals and their families in the same way that the Conservative Party traditionally has. Why abandon your natural political home at the first sign of trouble?
It isn’t just that there seem to be no other really good options at the forthcoming general election, but that all conceivable outcomes lead to the simple choice between a Labour and a Conservative Prime Minister. There has perhaps never in the history of our democracy been a less appealing candidate for the top job than Jeremy Corbyn, a man who, when Russia deployed chemical weapons on British soil, thought that we should send them samples so that they could tell us whether or not they did it. How many Jewish MPs does Labour need to try and deselect before ordinary voters see that it is their moral duty to ensure that a man who attended a memorial service for the terrorists behind the Munich Olympic massacre does not enter Downing Street?
We must admire the tenacity of those who are now in control of the Conservative Party and the patience that it has taken them to both pursue and for the moment win the debate on the European Union. The lesson is to get organised, form networks, make the positive case for the centre-right side of the argument, and stake a claim to running the tent, not abandoning it.
The main political parties may currently be enthralled by their extremes but there’s no evidence that the wider population is. Tom McTague recently observed that: “Blairism is as dead as the rules he established for winning power. The next election will be won not from the center, but by the party that can get out its vote—more Karl Rove than Bill Clinton.” This is undoubtedly true for now, but the public will soon tire – if they have not already – of harsh political binaries and steroid-enhanced tribalism. When it does, the party that reforms fastest will reap the reward.
The third reason to stay is because there is so much to do. The underlying problems that people articulated when they voted to leave the European Union won’t be solved overnight by leaving it, but by addressing the concerns that those of us on the centre-right well understand. The great global problems of this century like the unchecked power of corporations to abuse a lack of transparent international tax cooperation, the environmental crisis, and the destabilisation of the cooperative, rules-based international order all require international solutions, not isolationism or ultra-nationalism.
Political ideologies won’t make people feel like their lives are improving or put food on their tables. The problems the country faces aren’t going anywhere, and for moderate conservatives looking at the departure of one of our most impressive standard bearers, there has scarcely been a more important time to stay put and get to work.
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