What happens to a political party that sells its soul for short-term advantage; betrays its most fundamental principles to support a con man; connives in all his lies and deceptions; promotes mediocrities simply for their loyalty; and purges the honest and decent from its ranks?
The answer is that you end up, when that con man is finally rumbled, with the sort of ugly, deeply unedifying spectacle that is the Conservative Party’s leadership contest: a motley crew of compromised candidates largely bereft of integrity, trapped by their past dishonesty, intellectually moribund, devoid of vision, trading smears and slurs and fighting like rats in the proverbial sack.
Save for Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat, they have all been part of Boris Johnson’s thoroughly rotten government. They have all been complicit in or defended his many transgressions over the past three years – his lawbreaking, his serial lying, his betrayals, his stoking of divisions, his trashing of the ministerial code, his assaults on independent institutions, his curtailment of civil liberties, his awarding of lucrative contracts, jobs and honours to cronies, his acceptance of improper gifts, and his protection of bullies, Covid rulebreakers, alleged sexual predators and shady lobbyists.
Time and again, they dutifully went on air to perjure themselves by defending the manifestly indefensible. They obediently tweeted their support when instructed to. They seldom, if ever, voiced even the mildest criticism of their leader as he routinely breached all the accepted standards of public life.
To her eternal shame Suella Braverman connived in Johnson’s readiness to violate domestic and international law, and in his attacks on the judiciary, despite being Attorney-General, the nation’s top law officer. Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor when Dominic Cummings sought to exert control over the Treasury, but happily returned to the government 16 months later. Most of the candidates did finally round on Johnson last week, but even then they did so not because they had experienced some blinding revelation about his moral degeneracy, but for reasons of political expediency and self-interest.
They are now trapped by their own cowardice and dishonesty. How can they promise, with any conviction, to restore trust and integrity to public life? How can they plausibly now distance themselves from Johnson, his excesses and the destructive policies of his government that they unfailingly voted for.
Above all, how can they now admit the searingly obvious – that Brexit, the Big Lie that propelled Johnson into No 10 and underpinned his entire government, is proving a catastrophe for Britain? Not one – not even Tugendhat, a Remainer – dares do that, or to condemn the government’s unilateral and illegal plan to abandon large chunks of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement. Liz Truss, who campaigned for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, is now a born-again Brexiteer. Hunt insists, ridiculously, that he would be “very tempted” to vote Leave were a referendum held today.
They are so trapped by the nationalist, populist agenda which Johnson championed and his party embraced, that not one (save Tugendhat and Hunt) dares to propose policies to heal, rather than inflame, the country’s deep divisions. Or to improve relations with the European Union. Or to ditch the government’s hateful attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Or to abandon scurrilous legislation to limit people’s right to vote or protest. Or to raise contentious but vital issues such as climate change. Or to bring gifted centrists such as Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, or Rory Stewart, the former international development secretary, into government.
With the exception of Rishi Sunak the candidates are resorting instead to an unseemly and ludicrous battle to promise ever deeper tax cuts for businesses, citizens or both. No matter that their plans are unfunded. No matter that they solemnly voted for the tax rises they now pledge to jettison, or that Javid would now reverse the increase in National Insurance contributions that he supported as health secretary to boost the NHS budget. No matter that cutting taxes would fuel Britain’s rampant inflation, add to an already crushing national debt and accelerate the collapse of public services. Or that Paul Johnson, the respected director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is “for the birds”.
In this instance Sunak, the former chancellor, is absolutely right to warn against “fairy tale” promises to cut taxes while maintaining public spending. Keir Starmer is right to condemn what he calls an “arms race of fantasy economics”.
Meanwhile, as these profoundly flawed candidates seek shamelessly to ingratiate themselves to the tiny, unrepresentative electorate of Tory MPs and party members who will choose Britain’s prime minister for the third time in six years, the country is ravaged by the real world of soaring prices, plunging living standards, collapsing public services and the war in Ukraine.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the old adage goes, but in this instance there seems tragically little chance of it proving true.