At this difficult time we can take inspiration from our recent history and our last successful effort at national renewal
So it’s Theresa May versus Andrea Leadsom – the final two candidates in the Conservative Party leadership race whose names will now go forward to the wider Tory Party membership in September.
I’m delighted that the Conservatives will soon have given Britain her first two female prime ministers, I really am. When it comes to equality of opportunity the Tories deliver, while Labour bang on endlessly and fruitlessly about equality of outcome, peddle in tawdry identity politics and choose one white male after another to lead them onwards.
But does the successor to
Ted Heath Mark II David Cameron really have to be one of these two women? When she entered 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher already had the “Stepping Stones” report in her pocket and on her mind. By contrast, Andrea Leadsom brandishes an overhyped yet still rather thin CV, while Theresa May has your entire internet browsing history and the paranoia to use it against you.
And so, when deciding who to support in this battle to be the next British prime minister I find myself faced with an impossible choice – one may as well flip a coin.
This blog will inevitably write more about the Conservative Party leadership race in the coming days and weeks as I try to make a decision – right now I see pitifully few upsides to either candidacy, and great risk behind either option.
But for now I content myself with re-reading the seminal “Stepping Stones Report” authored by the late John Hoskyns, that masterful diagnosis of everything which ailed Britain in the late 1970s when the state socialist cure had almost succeeded in killing the British patient.
This report – and the solutions contained within it – quite literally saved this country when Margaret Thatcher, who had studied it, came to power in 1979. Without Stepping Stones, Britain would quite likely be a colder, more populous but equally poor and dysfunctional version of Greece. I say this to underline the amazing good which the Conservative Party can do when under the right leadership, and the thread by which such hopes often hang (Margaret Thatcher was considered a rank outsider when she first declared her candidacy for the Tory leadership in 1975).
At this time I am drawn to this passage in particular:
We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.
In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.
But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.
It is safe to say that the Conservative government of David Cameron and George Osborne has been in office but not really in power since being re-elected with a tiny outright majority in 2015. And aside from their creepy manifesto pledge about having “a plan for every stage of your life” it has been almost impossible to discern what the Tories actually stand for, besides staying in power.
Winning a majority has not been enough because the majority was won on the wrong terms – by a prime minister who often pitched himself to the left of Tony Blair in the tawdry hunt for centrist votes. And these are far from ordinary times. As this blog recently pointed out, quoting Lincoln, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.
Theresa May is an accomplished technocrat, but also a fierce and implacable authoritarian. Even her more restrained actions – such as denying the former London mayor Boris Johnson the power to use his expensively purchased second hand German water cannon for crowd control – smack more of political chicanery rather than any shred of liberal principle.
On civil liberties, May is utterly monstrous. But more to the point, Theresa May came down on the wrong side of the most fundamental, existential question to face this country since the end of the Second World War.Worse, she supported the Remain campaign with a calculated half-heartedness, refusing to boldly commit and make the public case for her position. What kind of leadership is this?
Andrea Leadsom is no better. She has publicly and irresponsibly spoken about triggering Article 50 almost immediately, well before any initial scoping discussions have even had the opportunity to commence and well before the British government has had the proper chance to decide how best to implement Brexit, and seems intent on taking us out of the EEA as we secede from the European Union. Her haste is not evidence of super-virtuous commitment to democracy or an uncommon respect for the will of the people, but is the conclusion reached by what seems to be a rather glib and uncurious mind.
But whether you are less repulsed by the flinty-eyed authoritarianism of Theresa May or the oversimplifying, CV-padding antics of Andrea Leadsom, it seems reasonable to say that neither of the two remaining candidates have anything approaching a latter-day Stepping Stones report waiting in their pockets for immediate unveiling as soon as the Queen has invited one of them to become prime minister. And that is what we need most of all right now.
Theresa May’s authoritarian streak, contempt for civil liberties and belief in wielding the coercive power of the state is incredibly objectionable to this blog – yet as by far the more experienced candidate, May is best placed to negotiate good secession terms for Britain with the EU (assuming that she doesn’t double-cross us and effectively condemn Britian to “associate membership” on the margins).
Andrea Leadsom has precious little track record in government or politics in general, and has distinguished herself by saying some downright irresponsible things about Brexit. As a result, she could potentially overshadow the democratic dividend of Brexit through unnecessary self-inflicted economic wounds (e.g. by taking Britain out of the EEA). Yet she is superficially more Thatcher-like (I won’t say Thatcherite), and has the potential, however small, to grow into a far more radical Conservative leader than the soul-sappingly ideology-free Theresa May could ever be.
Choose May and you risk turning Britain into a dystopian police state while rewarding yet another ideology-free, politics-by-numbers technocrat, the kind of person whose unambitious, managerial approach to the great issues of the day turns millions of people off politics altogether.
Choose Leadsom and you risk a tumultuous and highly suboptimal form of Brexit while taking an enormous leap of faith that an untested neophyte will successfully get to grips with one of the steepest learning curves in the world, and that they will be advised well in the process.
Who can choose between these two flawed options with any degree of certainty?
Top Image: ‘Stepping Stones’ Report
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