Leadership Viewpoint

Over the last few weeks, an enormous number of people have been in touch to offer views on the leadership election the Conservative Party - and by extension, the country - is facing. As ever, I'm terribly grateful for the time so many have taken to share their assessments of the situation. At a time when politics is so divisive and riven across party lines, it's extremely heartening to receive such thoughtful, rigorously argued and courteous messages.

As so many have emphasised, this is perhaps the most important choice of national leader the country has faced in a generation. If we fail to elect the right leader and seize our opportunity to bring a resolution to Brexit, we risk a further eclipse of the centre ground, a further stoking of the already combustible public mood and the election of what I believe would be a quasi-Marxist government. Whether you accept that or not, few would disagree that recent years have been among the most febrile and divisive in the history of peacetime British politics. But, in my view, compared with the devastating effects of the above, even our current situation may seem, in retrospect, relatively benign. 

So in assessing the runners and riders in this leadership election, I've been acutely conscious of the gravity of the situation - and of the unprecedented nature of the challenges we all face.

At the recent European elections, both main parties felt the force of public indignation and resentment not just towards the chronic parliamentary deadlock over Brexit but politics itself. Frustration with the whole 'political class' as Mr Farage neatly likes to characterise it, while conveniently ignoring his three-decade long political career. 

The centre ground of politics faces the threat of exodus both to the populist left and the populist right. The Labour Party can't talk about Brexit because they have yet to reach a view - let alone a policy - on it. Conversely, the Brexit Party are unable to talk about anything but Brexit. For them it's of course their entire raison d'etre. Given that the Conservative Party is in government rather than having the dubious luxury of acting as a single-issue campaigning group, how should we react in the face of these challenges? Who, of the dozen or so candidates who've thrown their hats into the ring, is best placed to meet them head-on?

I know there is no unanimity whatever on this question in our part of Somerset - and know, therefore, that any decision I make will be welcomed by some and contested by others. But knowing all candidates and having heard all of them make their case, I now believe that Boris Johnson is best placed to meet the specific challenges we face.   

This is not to say that he is without faults. Acres of newsprint will be devoted to his not-so private life, his haircut and past histrionics. And we'll see various inferences drawn from passing remarks and entire analytical edifices knocked up based on the dubious foundations of decades-old columns written for the Daily Telegraph. We'll hear a great deal of this. But don't expect to hear much of the big falls in crime during his mayoralty, cutting the murder rate in half, cutting council tax by 20 per cent, or cutting delays on the tube by 30 per cent - these facts may be cropped from the final edit.

Column miles will be devoted to how he once rode his bike without a helmet or dangled from a zip-wire, but little space will be found for his record in vastly expanding the Living Wage, renationalising the Jubilee Line for its upgrade and building more social housing than Livingstone. 

When assessing his time as Foreign Secretary, many will forget the way in which he helped rally the world against Russia's barbaric use of chemical weapons with an unprecedented 28 countries joining together to expel 153 spies in protest at what happened in Salisbury. Likewise his global campaigns against the illegal wildlife trade or rejuvenation of the Commonwealth with a summit that saw Gambia back on board, Zimbabwe on the path to membership and Angola beating on the door.

I am not an idealist. Neither do I cling to any belief in adversarial party politics. My politics are driven by pragmatism and a recognition that tests of ideological purity have little relevance to the real world. So while I did see the Prime Minister's version of the Withdrawal Agreement (despite inevitable imperfections) as a genuine attempt to secure our departure from the EU by March 29th, I believe that it's now imperative to take the October 31st deadline seriously. Of course, we should attempt to fashion a new Withdrawal Agreement in the time available - but we must wield the threat of No-Deal in any negotiation as the default if that process fails. Otherwise we are, as before, trying to achieve the best outcome for us while simultaneously indicating that we will accept whatever outcome we are given. 

A further extension, adding to a sense that the Government is engaging in a deliberate agenda of infinite deferral would solve nothing and – judging by my postbag - risk further damage to the already frayed fabric of democracy in the UK. 

While pushing Brexit to a conclusion, I believe the country desperately needs a new, fresh vision. And alongside that, it needs a leader who can communicate this with a clear One Nation agenda, offering answers to pressing issues including school funding, social injustice, the need for new infrastructure, a secure post-Brexit economy, strengthening the Union and providing the certainty businesses - and we all - need to plan ahead. 

Against a Labour Party that is almost unrecognisable from that which was in government only ten years ago, the next leader will also need to retake ground that was, until recently, almost entirely uncontested: the fact that individual success is not the enemy of social justice but its economic guarantor; a belief in institutions like NATO that have guaranteed the security of the West since 1945, and respect for those principles of individual freedom and autonomy that have underpinned our national life for generations.

This can only be done by a new Prime Minister who is a proven winner and who can communicate outside the anaesthetising register of conventional political discourse. Harnessing this ability is crucial in battling the populists encroaching from either extreme of the political landscape. 

As the Conservative Party lies etherised upon a table waiting for the defibrillator to show up, I fear that it will not be able to arrest the current polarisation and govern in everyone’s interests if it fails to make these arguments - and make them with verve, optimism and energy.

If anyone can apply the defibrillator and provide such a dramatic and propulsive charge, Boris can.