In this week’s New Statesman: The dream ticket?

With Cameron in crisis, the Tories are ready for Boris and Gove. PLUS: Mehdi Hasan on Islam and gay rights.

Cover Story: Gove and Boris - the dream ticket?

Boris Johnson wins elections. Michael Gove is an ideologue. Together, they can offer what Cameron lacks, writes Rafael Behr in our cover story this week. Behr considers if an alliance could succeed David Cameron and George Osborne at the top of the Tory party. The prospect of a European referendum has exposed divisions in the Conservative ranks that Cameron seems unable to close:

Cameron does not want to take Britain out of the EU; a large part of his party wants nothing more. That makes it inevitable that the Tories will ponder a change of leadership, periodically in public and almost constantly in private.

Though Johnson is a clear favourite among Conservative members, there are concerns about his lack of seriousness and ideological rigour. That, Behr argues, is where a joint ticket with Gove, the Education Secretary, starts to look appealing:

Gove’s appeal to Tories is almost the opposite of Johnson’s. He has no aura of mass-market celebrity but is admired in the party for fixedness of purpose and executive effectiveness . . . The zeal behind the push to convert local authority schools to academies, found new free schools and promote pious cultural conservatism in the curriculum has stunned Labour, infuriated the teaching unions and alienated civil servants. Those things count as triumphs among Conservatives.

Behr highlights the two men’s friendship and the emergence of policy collaboration between them, with Johnson planning to use City Hall powers as Mayor of London to promote free schools. Above all, a Boris-Gove alliance would offer different and complementary traits that many Tories believe are missing in Cameron.

The rational course for the Tories would be to unite behind the Prime Minister, but they have drifted beyond reason and into the realm of longing. There are two things they particularly crave but which Cameron, in their eyes, is incapable of providing. The first is popularity that reaches beyond core Tory voters, yet without a hint of apology for being a Conservative. The second is the firm smack of ideological constancy. In today’s party those dream attributes come with names attached: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

The Guest Column: Edward Davey says Eurosceptic Tories are putting party before country

The rise of “multiparty politics” in Britain has been a big factor in the Tory party’s “poor record”, writes the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Liberal Democrat MP, Edward Davey, in our Diary this week. “How they respond may determine the next election. Do they appease Ukip or confront it?”

The Conservative “appeasers” have won out so far, Davey says, but is the party getting it wrong? He writes:

People need to wake up. When cabinet ministers follow Tory grandees in backing withdrawal from the EU and when the Conservative Party votes against its own Queen’s Speech, stakes have risen. The best we now have from the Conservatives when it comes to pursuing our national interest in Europe is to threaten our partners with renegotiation and an “in or out” referendum, whatever is negotiated. It’s like a hostage-taker saying, “If you give me what I want, I still might shoot you.”

By talking up the prospects of withdrawal, the Tories are damaging our national interest, not strengthening it. And they are doing so on the false promise that it will help them win a general election. This is a clear case of putting party before country. Shame on them.

Read this piece in full, online now.

 

Mehdi Hasan: As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality, but I oppose homophobia

Writing after the Cambridge theologian Dr Tim Winter and the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologised for homophobic comments they had made, Mehdi Hasan issues his own apology for “some pretty inappropriate comments in the past”.

Taking the conversation wider, Hasan says that “many Muslims . . . have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality”. But putting aside his personal “struggles” with the matter, he appeals for a more balanced and progressive relationship between faith and homosexuality – arguing that homophobia and Islamobophia actually have much in common.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed “gay” as a mark of abuse . . .

It’s now 2013 and I’m 33 years old. My own “youthful enthusiasm” is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me. What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up . . . I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance . . .

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, “at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown . . .” Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear – especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, “Muslims v gays”.

 

Felicity Cloake: Our big fat fear

In the NS Essay this week, Felicity Cloake writes a special report on the obesity epidemic. As our waistlines have grown, she writes, so has our collective judgment of the overweight – in society, in the workplace, and even in the healthcare system. So how did fattism become “perhaps the last form of socially acceptable forms of prejudice?” She begins:

Almost half of the people surveyed for a Mintel special report in 2009 blamed the rising tide of obesity on “laziness” and a fifth attributed it to greed. Even Tam Fry, the spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, has described the obese as “eating [themselves] silly”.

Indeed, hardly a month goes by without some hysteria in the tabloids about “fat Brit­ain”. Whatever the story, the sentiment is the same – it’s all their own fault.

The government, hardly more understanding, seems to view fat people purely as a selfish drain on scarce national resources. “At a time when our country needs to rebuild our economy,” the former health secretary Andrew Lansley wrote in the introduction to the government’s 2011 Healthy Lives, Healthy People policy paper, “overweight and obesity impair the productivity of individuals and increase absenteeism.” Apparently it’s up to all of us “to be honest” about what we eat and drink. The subtext? If only fat people would lay off the junk, they’d save the economy £7bn a year.

 

The Mr. Men Game: Richard J Evans challenges Michael Gove’s history agenda

Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, responds to criticisms levelled at him in a recent speech on the teaching of history in schools by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Evans wonders why Gove ignored the best account of the subject, the 2011 Ofsted report History for All. Instead, Gove appealed to a number of rather unreliable sources.

It emerged that Gove’s sources included only one properly conducted poll, carried out by Lord Ashcroft to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. The rest, including a poll carried out by the hotel chain Premier Inn, was either amateurish, politically biased, or irrelevant.

Why, Evans wonders, “does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to keep denigrating the dedicated people who teach history in our schools? Where is his patriotic pride in the historical profession in our country, the best in the world? The recently released QS rankings of university history departments across the globe put Cambridge top, Oxford second and other British universities such as the LSE, UCL and Warwick only a little way behind.”

 

Ian Mulheirn: The truth about welfare

What happened to social solidarity in Britain? asks Ian Mulheirn, the director of the Social Market Foundation. When the Beveridge report was released in 1942, people “queued around the block” to get a copy. “Welfare was a vote-winner,” Mulheirn writes, but in the intervening decades “the descent from Beveridge has been total”.

In extracts from his forthcoming publication Beveridge Rebooted, he argues: “Our welfare system today is politically toxic and the public debate about it has become untethered from evidence or a semblance of rational discussion.” Citing comprehensive research, he identifies flaws of the government’s current welfare strategy:

Our welfare system is failing politically. It does not inspire confidence among taxpayers, nor does it provide effective support for those who need it. Increasingly it is seen to be overgenerous, disincentivising work, and out of control. Yet paradoxically, for the vast majority of workers, it provides some of the least generous support available in the developed world for people who experience the misfortune of unemployment.

How did this situation come about?

 

George Eaton interviews Sarah Wollaston MP

In an interview with George Eaton, the Conservative MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, accuses David Cameron of caving in to drinks and tobacco industry lobbyists by abandoning plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes.

Asked why Cameron chose not to include these policies in the Queen’s Speech, she replies:

“It’s lobbying. And to those who think that lobbying doesn’t work, well, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t be doing it.”

She adds: “We should not try and compete with Nigel Farage by looking like the party of booze and fags.”

 

In the Critics

This week, the historian of the Catholic Church John Cornwell reviews On Heaven and Earth, a series of interviews between Jorge Mario Bergoglio, recently named Pope Francis, and the Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, now published as a book. The critical questions to answer about the “first pope from the Americas”, Cornwell argues, are these: “Will he support the progressive Catholic constituency that bemoans the reversal of the ideals of the Second Vatican Council? Or will he encourage the traditionalists, who yearn for the return of the citadel Church of the great Piuses of the 20th century?” On the evidence of these conversations, Cornwell concludes, the Francis papacy will be characterised by a “rhetorical emphasis on the Church’s identity and fellowship with the poor”. However, it is also clear, he notes, that “the new pope is sceptical to the point of cynicism about the secular sphere’s ability to relieve poverty without religion; and he is ominously silent on the strengths of social democracy”.

In books:

  • Leo Robson reviews Fallen Land, the second novel by the young American writer Patrick Flanery: “Flanery smuggles [in] an improbable range of themes and modes. Like many an American novelist before him, he tries to keep the mixture under control by drawing connections . . . but his efforts are strained . . .”
  • The former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis praises Progressive Capitalism by David Sainsbury: “This book is equally important for what it says and for who is saying it . . . A decade ago this prospectus would have seen its author branded ‘Red Sainsbury’. Now it is pretty sensible and mainstream. A new centre ground is being forged.”
  • Olivia Laing enjoys Here and Now, an exchange of letters between the novelists Paul Auster and J M Coetzee: “It’s a spectacle that engages both spectators and participants: there’s something of the tennis match here, a game that is itself a subject of scrutiny.”
  • David Shariatmadari reads The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine: “The message that ought to be taken from this book is that criminality should be seen as a publichealth problem.”
  • Vernon Bogdanor reads a new paperback edition of Britain’s First Government by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn: “The history of the first Labour government shows how dangerous it is for the party to retreat into a ghetto, isolating itself from other forces on the left.”

Plus:

  • This week’s Critic at Large is Ned Beauman, recently voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Beauman explores the murky phenomenon of “gang stalking”. “Reading about gang stalking online,” he writes, “can be dispiriting . . . but I confess I also find it addictive.” He confesses his ambivalence: “Gang stalking websites . . . are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills.”
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby for the big screen: “[The] film is too dependent for its energy on Gatsby’s ostentatious parties to achieve any satirical strikes.”
  • Kate Mossman reviews the new album by Laura Marling: “Her appeal has always been the unadorned purity of her songs.”
  • Antonia Quirke listens to an interview with the writer Jan Morris on Radio 3 (“There hung over the whole interview . . . a flat determination not to mention her gender reassignment . . .”).
  • Andrew Billen watches Jeremy Herrin’s production of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe and concludes: “Not all of the production soared.”
  • Rachel Cooke reviews the ITV adaptation of Kate Summerscale’s prize-winning non-fiction book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (“The time will come when [Olivia] Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet”).

 

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.