Johnson might yet prove to be Davidson's greatest asset

Johnson might yet prove to be Davidson's greatest asset

by Linda Holt
article from Saturday 13, July, 2019

WE LIVE IN AN ERA of celebrity politics, 24-hour media, and the relentless flow of comment on social media, where everyone can be a reporter and a pundit, treating the famous as if they were personal acquaintances. These illusions, which we collectively and individually confect, offer gratifications beyond mere entertainment. They are irresistible and a, if not the,  defining constituent of 21st century politics. 

The twin examples of Donald Trump and Theresa May are instructive. Trump is the supremo of celebrity politics, drawn to preen and pronounce on twitter like a moth to a flame; May, by comparison, proved the dampest of squibs, morally averse and awkward in the media glare as if she were on the autistic spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn, more May than Trump in his attitude to PR, was lifted ahoy on a meme wave, an unlikely Magic Grandpa mascot for instagrammers, and others seeking an alternative to the dull politics of austerity.

That the choice of Conservative leader and Prime Minister should resemble a vote on a reality-TV game show is unavoidable. On that front, Boris Johnson wins hands down. On screen and in person, he projects, apparently effortlessly, a charismatic and eccentric persona. By contrast with his larger than life rival, Jeremy Hunt seems thin and bland – a competent middle manager, trained to within an inch of his life by endless workshops on communication.

At the leadership hustings in Perth a week ago, Hunt was the warm-up act, while Johnson was the undisputed star. The room was polite and pleased with Hunt, but it was “Boris” they loved. Of course we all fell for the celebrity schtick, while at the same time disavowing it. 

When a young woman questioned Johnson about whether you had to be a “loyal husband and father” to be a good prime minister, he came out with his characteristic line: “I just don’t comment on that stuff”. But his questioner persisted: his refusal to answer meant voters “would come to their own conclusion and it may not be a favourable one”. Johnson took it on the chin, saying he would “live with” that situation, and the audience rose in support.

Soon after, another question, this time from a man, raised the issue of his untrustworthiness in public and private life. Again Johnson parried, defending the side of the bus claim of £350 million. The questioner again persisted, that Johnson tended to “fib” when in a corner and cited Max Hastings’ sacking of him for lying. Johnson was bullish, and the audience didn’t care. 

Saturday’s Herald  led with the headline “Johnson rattled as hustings put spotlight on character”. Like his interviewer at the hustings, STV’s Colin Mackay, who heckled Johnson about these questions, the media have seemed much more worried about “character” than party members. Of course it is “news”: celebrity gossip is more interesting and easier to connect with than speculations about the intricacies of Brexit negotiations or parliamentary procedure. It’s also easy ammo for Johnson’s enemies, inside and outside the Conservative party. (Certainly the questions on character felt like put-up jobs, and Jeremy Hunt seemed to play his own wife and children card at every opportunity.)

The rank and file are much more blasé about questions of character than politicians and journalists. The prospect of Johnson courting one’s daughter would gladden the hearts of few parents, but that is entirely different from the prospect of him as prime minister. 

The fact is all politicians lie. Call it spin or bullshit or being economical with the actualité, as in Alan Clark’s famous euphemism: they are all at it. Whether by omission or commission, they allow their parties and voters to believe things they know may not be true. They all stand on manifestos which only a simpleton from Mars could imagine anyone seriously believed would or could be realised, no ifs or buts. 

Fibbing when in a corner is an essential political skill, as is telling people what they want, or sometimes need, to hear. (You could argue that one of Theresa May’s shortcomings as prime minister was that she was neither sufficiently comfortable with, nor adept at, political lying). The electorate is, I think, more sophisticated than the black-and-white morality of celebrity soap opera or the rhetorical knockabout of political PR might suggest.

The question, then, becomes not one about lying per se  but about how far a politician can deliver – or can be trusted to deliver. Here Boris Johnson wins hands down on Jeremy Hunt. He delivered in London, winning first against Ken Livingstone, then making good on various fronts during his mayorship (ifs and buts notwithstanding), then winning a second election. All this was against the odds. It’s a record no current UK politician can equal. With betting odds of evens on a general election this year, Johnson seems more likely to see off the Brexit Party and pull off a popular triumph.

On the issue of Brexit, Johnson was one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign – another vote he won – and resigned from May’s cabinet over her Chequers policy that became the Withdrawal Agreement. Hunt, by contrast, was on the Remain side, and stuck with May throughout. A continuity candidate for a failed premier is a tricky, perhaps impossible, line to tread; few will warm to him as May-lite or a May tribute act.

Instead Johnson offers brio and brinkmanship – promising to leave by October 31st, “do or die”. Will Johnson be able to deliver Brexit? No one knows.  It may not even be deliverable, but he is a surer bet for Leavers and for anyone who believes the referendum result must be respected.

If logic favours Johnson, and the majority mood amid the 500 activists at the Perth hustings bore this out, not to mention the overwhelming majority of MPs and Conservative members outside Scotland, why did Ruth Davidson and the majority of her MSPs and MPs come out for Hunt?

There may be personal antipathy at work. Certainly Johnson has inspired a striking degree of loathing among Westminster colleagues and journalists: it’s not difficult to imagine situations where his brand of Etonian blokeishness, founded as it is on an ocean of confidence, entitlement and privilege, could grate, infuriate and repel. 

Yet it would be surprising if Ruth Davidson who has jauntily weathered more than her fair share of privileged Tory boys and patronising old men would allow her political judgment to be thus clouded. In fact, she has persistently called it wrong at each previous stage of the leadership contest, backing first Sajid Javid, then Michael Gove. As one wag in the commentariat speculated when she backed Hunt, her record of picking winners meant he was now bound to lose.

The answer, of course, is that Davidson is looking out for the Union and/or Scottish Conservatives (I’m not sure how separable these interests are, either electorally, or, for some Conservatives, ideologically – the Party’s full name says it all). The argument against Johnson is that he plays badly in Scotland. Here he is the archetypal Westminster Toaree, an Eton toff who could not be more London-centric. He is also a leading Brexiteer where Davidson was a committed Remainer, 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain and the SNP has exploited this result in its agitation for independence ever since.

At heart, the issue is the difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Obviously the major difference is support for independence, and the institutional differences it has produced such as devolution and SNP governments. While nationalists always insist on absolute and superior differences between the peoples of Scotland and rUK, overdoing the differences politically risks exacerbating them and making the argument for secession self-evident – which is why it is a nationalist reflex.

But it is also a clear and present danger for Davidson and Scottish Conservatives. Asserting a distinctive Scottish Conservative identity – pro-EU, anti-Johnson and his “upper-class” “English” style – doesn’t merely beg the question about an independent Scottish Conservative Party, but about an independent Scotland.

Instead, we might turn the question of difference on its head and consider the similarities between Scottish and rUK voters. 

Support for the SNP and Scottish independence does not map straightforwardly on to support for Remain. 36 per cent of SNP voters voted Leave (as did 36 per cent of Labour and 26 per cent of Lib Dem voters). The reasoning given by many nationalist Leavers was that they believed in Scottish self-determination and independence from all political unions which compromised Scottish sovereignty. Emotionally, the anti-politics feeling, the sense of being left behind, stranded for whatever reason and barred from the metropolitan, university-educated, mobile workforce, fuelled both the Independence vote in 2014 and the Brexit vote two years later. This personal alienation from endless national economic progress, and the much-derided “populist” or “right-wing” turn it has produced, extends way beyond the UK. 

It is a mistake, I think, to assume that the transmutation of this anti-politics feeling into support for Scottish independence is stable. I am amazed at the number of people I know who voted Yes in 2014 but are now ardent Brexiteers. Their faith in the SNP and even in independence in the foreseeable future as the immediate solution to their and Scotland’s woes is in full-scale retreat. To that extent, they have a great deal in common with Leave-voting Conservatives in Scotland. 

Whenever Westminster Conservatives come to Scotland, they always bang on about “our precious union”. Back in London, Scottish concerns too often look like an after-thought – if they are present at all. At the Perth hustings Hunt was tripped up by knowing nothing about Bifab, and then sunk himself in a bigger hole by praising Scotland’s fantastic success story in offshore wind and all the jobs it has brought (!) Johnson missed that bullet, and instead made much of the Union-dividend of BAE jobs at the Govan shipyards he had visited earlier that day.

That neither Hunt nor Johnson saw fit to mention Scotland in the STV debate a few days later did not augur well. However, if Johnson carries out even half of what he promised for the Union, and comes to Scotland regularly with genuine interest, he could ride the wave of political disaffection with the SNP, just as he harnessed dissatisfaction with Labour in London in his double defeat of Ken Livingstone.

I have seen no polling to indicate whether the majority of Conservative voters in Scotland agreed with the official Scottish Tory position to vote remain in the referendum, but I very much doubt it. Last Friday’s hustings showed that while everyone present wanted to safeguard and bolster the union, a majority of Scottish Tory members did not share their leader’s preference for Jeremy Hunt and his softer stance on Brexit. They may be on to something, and Boris Johnson might yet prove to be Ruth Davidson’s greatest asset.

Linda Holt is a Conservative Councillor in Fife for East Neuk & Landward

 

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