The Tory leadership contest is being built around an illusion: that whoever is chosen, Hunt or Johnson, will be a big, unconstrained figure able to lead Britain in a new direction. Theresa May’s successor is going to be tightly trussed – by the unchanged parliamentary maths and the unforgiving economics; by the crumbling of Tory unity in the country; and by the (so far) steely, implacable determination of Brussels. The next leader is going to be as cabined, cribbed, confined and bound in as ever Macbeth was. It’s going to be an at times nightmarish job. The chance of a general election this autumn remains high.
So how might Hunt or Johnson run a survival strategy? I would expect a “bold, generous, brave, offer” to Tory MPs – and, crucially, pro-Brexit Labour MPs – plus the promise of posts to Farage and co. Huge amounts of money would be dangled before the relevant constituencies, and every form of patronage, including peerages and public appointments, used to try to get the maximum number of votes for a deal. Then there would be a private plea to Brussels for some kind of fig-leaf, just big enough to justify another try in parliament. And it’s not impossible that, facing the alternative of no deal, the original package, more or less, finally gets through. Imagine being Theresa May on that autumn evening.
Silence is not golden
As to Boris Johnson’s domestic fight, only two reflections. First, a Tory membership that is apparently prepared to surrender the Union with Scotland and to damage the economy, to get Brexit, isn’t likely to allow this to put them off the front-runner. Second, while nobody else knows exactly what happened in that flat, Johnson’s airy refusal to answer reasonable and appropriate questions from Iain Dale about the incident is a very bad look. Nobody can be forced to answer a question, as I know all too well. But to say nothing will put much of the media even more against him, and was therefore, from his point of view, a grave mistake.
Crossing a white line
Since interrogating Michael Gove over his cocaine confessions, I’ve been reminded how impeccably polite he is: he certainly found the exchange grim but was admirably forthright and couldn’t have been more affable afterwards. During our interview, he reminded me – rightly – that we all make stupid mistakes in our youth. He argued that nobody should be defined by them, and again I agree. I have a particular issue with Class A drugs, however, because I have the honour to be patron of a local group that works with gang members and other endangered young people in our area. From this one group, covering one small part of north London, eight youngsters have been murdered in the past 18 months. It is simplistic to say that children are now killing each other in order that wealthy people can have a good time. But only a little simplistic.
Presenting Radio 4’s Start the Week means most of my reading is chosen for me. By June I have piled up huge amounts of stuff I’ve been desperate to read for months. I tend to have a reading plan each summer. This year, I’ve been thinking about all those authors who were very big when I was growing up in the 1970s but have mysteriously vanished from most bookshops. Why? Were we all wrong back then? There’s only one way to find out. So I have been stocking up on John Cowper Powys, Lawrence Durrell and even Hermann Hesse. I will let you know…
Will the wise
London is awash with Shakespeare. I’ve seen wonderful things at the Globe this summer, and hugely enjoyed Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the new Bridge Theatre, which has become one of the capital’s most interesting places. And clever WS continues to speak to us in unexpected ways, muttering from the side of his mouth. After walking to the Bridge in yet another June downpour, overhearing people talking about the effect of global warming on the seasons, I heard Titania afresh: “The seasons alter; hoary-headed frosts/Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose… The spring, the summer,/The chiding autumn, angry winter, change/Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,/By their increase, now knows not which is which.” Oberon’s explanation – that seasonal discord is caused by the row among fairies – is a lot more comforting than collapsing ice shelves and changes in sea currents.
Dancing away from Brexit
Another place I haunt, for good music, is Wigmore Hall. I recently heard András Schiff there, playing the six Bach partitas entirely by memory, on his bright red Bösendorfer piano – an astonishing feat of athleticism, memory and concentration. Before he began, Sir András stood and made a little speech. These were works by a German composer, he reminded us, each composed of dances from all around Europe – the sarabande from Spain, the French and Italian courante, the allemande, and from Ireland and Scotland the jig, or gigue. But what would happen, he asked, if the jig suddenly declared its independence of all the rest, and said it wanted to take back control? It would still sound fine, but not quite as good as in the full partita. I have heard some eloquent Brexit and Remain speeches in my time; but rarely anything as elegant as that.
I’m going back to Scotland soon for at least a chunk of the summer. I’ll be drawing, walking, seeing friends and drinking whisky. But I drink far less than I used to. I no longer really like the effect. As I age, I want less fuzziness – I lust after focus, clarity and zest. I want sharp, hard, clean lines, bright colours and an energetic wind. Maybe when one is younger, the slight blurring effect of alcohol is what one needs. But as I am about to turn 60, if you see me in the north looking a little flushed, it will be the wind, not the booze. Well, not unless someone has bought me a very fine Laphroaig.
This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order