STEPHEN GLOVER: Keir Starmer would be a disaster. The Tories cannot afford a civil war
The Conservatives are rightly said to be a formidable election winning machine, whose pragmatism has made them the most successful political party of the past century.
But from time to time they suffer a collective rush of blood to the head, and merit John Stuart Mill’s description as the ‘stupid party’.
This is just such a moment.
We are a roughly a year from a general election, which most polls suggest Sir Keir Starmer and Labour will win by a huge majority. Not the ideal time to embark on a renewed bout of internecine warfare, you would think.
But that is exactly what has happened during the past few days as followers of Rishi Sunak trade insults with the dwindling band of Boris Johnson’s bag carriers.
Two of them, in addition to Boris himself, have precipitated by-elections in traditionally safe seats in which the Tories may now be beaten, and Mr Sunak’s leadership subsequently questioned.
It has even been suggested Boris himself might choose to fight one of these seats, though I very much doubt he will.
The newly knighted Jacob Rees-Mogg warned Tory party managers in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday that they shouldn’t block his hero from fighting any constituency that might take his fancy.
How has it come to this? You might think some great ideological rift had opened up between Rishi and Boris, but it hasn’t. This is all about people who were once friends no longer getting on.
Margaret Thatcher lost the leadership of the Tory party in 1990 largely because usurpers led by Michael Heseltine believed she was becoming dangerously anti-EU.
The crown slipped through Heseltine’s greasy hands, and was promptly picked up by John Major, who turned out to be scarcely less pro-EU.
No such high ideas separate Rishi and Boris. And, if anything, Rishi is slightly to the Right of Boris. I was interested to see Boris having a go at the Prime Minister in his statement on Friday over excessive business and personal taxes.
Yet throughout his tenure as PM, Mr Johnson showed much more interest in increasing public expenditure than in cutting taxes.
Boris is bitter — and with some reason. He rightly believes he was chiefly responsible for winning the largest Conservative majority for 32 years.
He knows Brexit probably would not have happened without him. Rishi had a non-speaking, if supportive, part in that campaign.
Boris then brought him on, and made him Chancellor, when the job could well have gone to someone else. And what was the reward? As Boris became mired in Partygate, Rishi began to plot against him, and finally pulled the emergency cord.
People with smaller egos than Boris would have felt traduced and betrayed. He saw himself as a man of destiny, and Rishi as an amusing, clever, suitably grateful, superior sort of office boy. No wonder he is bitter.
Yet it seems never to occur to Boris that in the pandemic he ran a pretty loose ship in Downing Street, letting parties take place which in most cases were not consonant with the coercive rules he was shoving down the throats of the rest of us.
Whether or not Boris misled the Commons is for me not the main issue, though MPs tend to get pompous about such things.
The point is that in No 10 he was characteristically easygoing, whereas in the country at large he was uncharacteristically directing and draconian.
Undoubtedly he has been partly stitched up by the Commons Privileges Committee, and it is obviously an offence against national justice to have as its chairwoman, Harriet Harman, who had tweeted that Boris was guilty. That is shameful.
But if Boris were more self-critical he would acknowledge to himself, before considering whether to plunge the Tories into a civil war whose only beneficiary can be Sir Keir Starmer, that his conduct over Partygate left much to be desired.
Somehow his anger with the sanctimonious Harriet Harman and the Privileges Committee has fused with his resentment against Mr Sunak.
Indeed, that resentment has been further stoked by a belief the PM could have tried harder to rein in the Privileges Committee and fought to keep Nadine Dorries and as many as seven others on Boris’s resignation honours list.
Again, one sympathises. He must feel like King Lear when his previously obsequious daughters Goneril and Regan turn on him.
But irked though he may be — and however mistreated Ms Dorries may feel — an honours list is of little concern to the general public in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Who cares?
Boris has all kinds of reasons for feeling misprized but in many ways he has only himself to blame. He should have known that many MPs and much of the media would be out to get him for having spearheaded Brexit.
His laxness over parties at No 10 was a gratuitous gift to his enemies.
And now, in the cause of party unity and the requirement to see off Labour, he must behave like a statesman rather than a thwarted student politician.
He must ensure that no more of his followers trigger by-elections that are likely to boost the Labour Party.
With only a year or so to the election, there’s absolutely no chance of Boris being called back to No 10, however much Mr Sunak may languish in the polls. It simply isn’t going to happen in the short time that remains.
Boris should leave the field of battle with dignity, and say little or nothing this side of the election. He can write his political memoirs, finish his book on Shakespeare, and earn dollops of cash making speeches to American businessmen.
If Boris behaves himself and the Tories are wiped out in the election, they won’t be able to blame him.
They would then look for a new leader, and it is just possible they would turn to Boris, though whether he has the stamina or eye for detail demanded by the grind of five or ten years in opposition I doubt.
Obviously it would be better if the Tories don’t lose — in which case Rishi Sunak would be triumphant.
I say ‘obviously’ not because I have enormous faith in the current administration, which looks tired, timid and bereft of new ideas. In normal circumstances it would be best if they went.
But I’ve come to believe that Sir Keir Starmer would probably be a disastrous prime minister. He appears to have no plan for higher growth.
Labour would simply increase taxes in a country where they already stand at record peacetime levels. We would drift back ignominiously into the gleeful grip of Brussels.
As for Mr Sunak, I hope he can find it in himself to be more magnanimous towards Boris. I suppose he feels guilty, which may make him mean, but he should resist those around him who seemingly want to humiliate the former prime minister.
Boris Johnson can be the king across the water, but the water must be very wide, and he mustn’t cross it unless by acclaim. This is his biggest test.
If he is as great a man as his defenders say he is, he will now, perhaps for the first time in his life, keep his counsel.
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