We must hope the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) is doing a decent job. But it seems that we – never mind Vladimir Vladimirovich – cannot rely on them these days. My only direct experience of Russian intelligence was interviewing Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB agent and the father of the ennobled newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, in London in the 1980s. He was dressed in a snappy jacket, rimless glasses and a leather tie. I asked him what he had been up to – dead drops, sneaking around after people etc? He agreed: “Absolutely. Also torturing people and… a few firing squads.” My face – I was a relatively inexperienced interviewer then – must have been a picture. There was a short pause before he laughed. It was the kind of very Russian joke which perhaps no longer seems so funny.
But back in Lebedev’s time, the KGB was indeed passing accurate information about UK politics to Moscow. If its successor the FSB was still, it would be reassuring Putin that the vividly anti-Russian rhetoric from cabinet ministers and others is not unconnected to a looming Tory leadership competition.
Both the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, have talked about pushing Russia out of the Crimea as well as the rest of Ukraine – something impossible to do without a fully fledged war with Russia. British defence ministers have talked about the legitimacy of firing British-made missiles into Russia itself. I recently spoke to General Richard Shirreff, the former deputy supreme allied commander Europe, who said he thought it would be difficult to have peace with Russia so long as Putin was in the Kremlin. He may be right – he is self-evidently right – but our phrases matter because we have had no real debate in this country about British war aims. I am assured by the Foreign Office that these aims don’t include regime change in Russia, but Britain is already regarded as the Kremlin’s most deadly enemy. Foaming tirades about nuking Britain come from Russian television stooges. There it is. We must keep our nerve. We must remember that victory for Putin in Ukraine would be hugely dangerous for the world. But how far do we go? This is a conversation Britain deserves to have with itself.
Before we get to it, we’ll be talking, of course, about the position of prime minister. This is written before the voting, still less the results, of the local elections on 5 May. But all the politicians I’m hearing from expect a particularly bleak night for the Tories, followed by renewed frenzy about Boris Johnson’s leadership.
After so many ups and downs we should be cautious. Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary and leadership contender, is certainly “on manoeuvres”. That is, his camp is talking to other MPs, and he has swelling support on the right of the party. This is not dishonourable or unreasonable: the gap between a PM announcing resignation and the first vote of Tory MPs for a successor can be as little as a week. Any contender making no overtures before that risks being swamped by higher profile rivals.
But is Hunt ready yet to go in for the kill? One of his supporters points out that with Joe Biden’s America tearing itself apart, Germany’s Olaf Scholz under fire for dithering and Emmanuel Macron struggling with the angry aftermath of his election victory, the West doesn’t look particularly united: “The defenestration of Boris Johnson right now would delight Putin, and we don’t want that.” So, the endgame is looking like a long game. Seat belts on: this might continue for another year. There has been cross-party speculation in the past fortnight about an early general election, called perhaps this October. The theory is that Johnson, thinking primarily of his own position, will have run out of cards by then – and may gamble everything on a final throw. But the internal polling of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters is so bleak on competence, the economy and leadership, this looks politically suicidal.
Internally, the question being asked is, “Is this 1992 or 2010?” In other words, is the party, towards the end of a long period in power, about to confound the experts and win yet another term as under John Major in 1992? Or is this more like the end of the New Labour years, when the country had tired of its government and a sea-change was coming which Gordon Brown could not resist? This moment feels more like 2010 to me. Tory politicians and writers visiting northern English seats and reporting that partygate is not the voters’ number one concern outside of Westminster may be missing the point.
First, partygate remains very potent in the wealthier southern shires and towns, including London. And second, if we look at the other biggest concerns for voters, they’re never anything that helps Tories – inflation and the cost of living; rising crime and anti-social behaviour; polluted rivers.
A new Tory worry ought to be agriculture. Putting to one side the Wakefield by-election, where Labour is the main challenger, there are two by-elections looming in the West Country – Somerton and Frome, where David Warburton has been suspended from the Tory parliamentary party pending an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and drug use, and Tiverton and Honiton, whose MP Neil Parish has resigned (randy tractors and all). Both have huge Tory majorities. Both also look vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. But why? That’s the interesting question, because it’s not necessarily to do with scandals.
Polling for the Country Land and Business Association, and surveys by Farmers’ Weekly magazine, show a dramatic fall in rural support for the Tories, with farmers particularly furious about post-Brexit trade deals, where they feel they have been ignored by ministers. Are we beginning to see a post-Brexit politics based not on the principle of being in or out, but on old-fashioned competence in making life better for producers and consumers after leaving?
The Liberal Democrats certainly think so and are now being advised on their new farming policies by Stuart Roberts, the former deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales, a farmer, and one-time Tory councillor.
A pincer movement of Liberal Democrats in the south and Labour in the north would not necessarily destroy the Tory majority at Westminster. But it is rattling the Conservatives’ chairman, Oliver Dowden, who wrote a letter complaining of an anti-democratic, covert pact between Keir Starmer and Ed Davey, under which Labour and Lib Dem candidates stood down as the parties try to help each other. This was clearly entirely different from the Brexit Party deciding not to contest 317 Tory seats in the 2019 general election.
As attentive NS readers know, there has indeed been a growing warmth between the two opposition parties in England. But there is no formal pact, nor can there be. When the parties are fighting each other for real gains – in Hull, for instance, or Lambeth in London – the contest is as fierce as ever. The same goes for a huge swathe of seats in the English north-west. On the other hand, there is no constitutional obligation for opposition parties to squander money and resources on hopeless seats, purely to oblige the Tories and their supporters.
We have a gripping set of contests coming. The “old media” – the Mirror on one side with partygate scoops, and the Mail with beergate, which is blowing away Starmer’s odour of sanctity – have, interestingly, been far more potent than social media. The Conservatives’ best hope still probably lies in persuading Boris Johnson to step aside. The great Johnson experiment – digging deep into working-class, anti-Brussels England, while spending freely and behaving, er, likewise – is threatening to pull apart the traditional Tory coalition. But he is not exactly a habitual step-asider.
So, if I were reporting back to the Kremlin, I would be saying: pay close attention to Johnson’s language on Ukraine, because that’s the reality for perhaps a year ahead. But don’t assume he will still be in power by the end of this war.
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future