Musical Chairs in Britain

Picking a new skipper for the Tories’ sinking ship.

Last week the people Britain were treated to a prolonged game of musical chairs, with the candidates for head of the Conservative Party – and thus Prime Minister – being reduced, day by day, in a series of votes by their party colleagues in Westminster, from six – Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, and Dominic Raab – to five to four to three to two. In the televised debates that were held along the way, the contenders displayed all the usual ambition and aplomb and deployed all the usual rhetoric about all the usual issues. Yes, Brexit, as expected, was Topic A. But at the June 16 debate on Channel 4 – from which Johnson, the former London mayor and odds-on favorite to succeed Theresa May as PM, chose to absent himself – nobody exhibited a credible sense of urgency about getting Brexit done already, now that three supposedly firm deadlines have come and gone, each time ratcheting up public rage and frustration.

At the June 18 debate on the BBC, with Johnson in attendance this time – and setting the tone with an expression of firm determination to honor the current Brexit deadline of October 31 – his competitors at least paid lip service to the notion of urgency. But at least two of them still didn’t get it: with classic English nonchalance, Hunt said he would be willing to “take a big longer” to withdraw from the EU, and Gove conceded he wouldn’t mind if it took an “extra couple of days” to get Brexit done. Viewers who had been following month after month of Brexit speeches in the House of Commons were treated to yet more of the tiresome nit-picking and hair-splitting – not to mention rote hand-wringing about the purportedly dire potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit – that they’ve seen at Westminster and that have brought the Tories to the brink of disaster.

At no point in these parlays did any of these chaps, other than Johnson, give a clear indication that he sincerely feared that, in playing this game of musical chairs, he and his compeers were doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They all talked about the Conservative Party as if it were a permanent pillar of British society, an ineradicable part of the national landscape, a force of nature; in truth, they behaved as if their party still enjoyed the approval of a majority, or at least plurality, of British voters. The fact that it received an alarmingly low 8.8% of the vote in the MEP elections, coming in behind Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party, the Lib Dems, Labour, and even the Greens, appeared not to have had remotely the kind of psychological impact on them that one might have expected from ordinary sentient beings.

At the June 16 debate, Stewart was the only one who said that he would, if selected as prime minister, let Farage take part in a new round of Brexit negotiations; the others, ignoring Farage’s stunning MEP mandate, painted him dismissively as an outsider who had no reason to expect to play a role in their sacred colloquies. Every one of these men – again, other than Johnson – seemed to take a disproportionate amount of comfort from the fact that his party still holds the reins of power in the Commons; each seemed to cling to the hope, vain or not, that once this selection process is over, the winner will somehow manage to secure a fine new deal with the EU, get it approved by Parliament, pull off a smooth Brexit, and thereby vanquish Farage and his crew to the dustbin of history and restore the Conservatives to their former glory. Indeed one gathered that these would-be Tory leaders, all of them, were incapable of conceiving that it’s their party that might actually vanish if they don’t get their act together and pull Britain out of the EU, prontissimo, one way or another.

On top of everything else, the June 18 debate reinforced the widespread perception that the Conservatives are merely Labour Lite. Gove served up a list of costly-sounding social programs that he thinks the Tories should introduce, or beef up, if they want to be able to “take on Jeremy Corbyn”; Stewart insisted that this was not “the time to be cutting taxes,” because the government needs all the money it can to improve on existing welfare benefits. At that debate, members of the public popped up live on a big screen, one after the other, to pose questions; one of them was a fifteen-year-old girl who, like many members of her generation, has been brainwashed into believing that the major threat to her life is climate change. When she asked the candidates about this issue, they readily promised to put the environment front and center if selected as PM, and thanked the girl, with nauseating effusiveness, for her “activism.” But none of it was enough for the girl, who, even as the men strained to satisfy her, kept shaking her head in disappointment, and who, when they were done genuflecting, pronounced herself thoroughly unimpressed by the lot of them.

But perhaps the most revealing moment of the week came forty-three minutes into the June 18 debate, when the questioner onscreen was an imam named Abdullah who raised the bogus issue of growing “Islamophobia” in Britain. Johnson, in particular, was singled out for having said, in a comment that made headlines in August of last year and that he has not been able to shake off since, that women in burkas look like mailboxes. In response, Johnson assured Abdullah that he was sorry if the remark had offended, and proceeded to mention his own Muslim great-grandfather, who, he said, had emigrated to Britain knowing it was “a beacon of generosity and openness and a willingness to welcome people from around the world.” This cringing performance, alas, wasn’t enough for the BBC presenter, who chided Johnson for being “frequently careless with your language” in connection with such delicate matters. As for the other hopefuls, they were predictably quick to try to appease Muslim sensitivities. Gove boasted that a Muslim MP had endorsed him as the “candidate best capable of bringing people together.” Others took the opportunity to bash Donald Trump – great move for a future PM, by the way – for his alleged “Islamophobia.”

Abdullah had not mentioned Katie Hopkins, the courageous critic of establishment spinelessness in the face of mass Islamic rape and other Koran-engendered malfeasance, but Hunt found it appropriate to single this magnificent woman out, condemning her “racist rants” – a disgusting lie – and, for good measure, dismissing the concerns of those Brits, presumably also racists, who fear that Islam “might change Britain” (as if it hadn’t already done so!). That wasn’t all: when challenged by Javid – who was himself raised Muslim, but describes himself as non-practicing – all of his competitors agreed, with pathetic eagerness, that there should be an external investigation to root out “Islamophobia” in the Conservative Party. Unsurprisingly, Abdullah – full name Abdullah Patel, who in addition to being an imam in Gloucester is also a primary-school teacher – turned out, as the Guardian and other media reported the next day, to have banged out a number of antisemitic tweets and to have advised women, also on Twitter, that if they wanted to avoid being sexually assaulted, they should “be smarter” and not ever “be alone with a man.” These revelations provided a handy reminder of the grim verities of British life today that underlay the Brexit vote and to which the Tory establishment – as amply demonstrated by these pitiful powwows – continues, in its perverse propriety, to close its eyes.

In the end, in any case, the contest came down to Boris Johnson vs. Jeremy Hunt; now it’s up to the general Tory membership to pick one of the two, with the winner to be announced on July 22. Under the circumstances, it sounds like an unconscionably long time to wait for a new PM. Then there’s this: early on Friday morning, Johnson’s neighbors summoned the cops, reporting a domestic disturbance at his address (and, outrageously, passing an audiotape of the dustup to the Guardian); while there were no arrests, the incident was on the top of the interviewer’s agenda on Saturday when Johnson and Hunt appeared on TV in the first of the campaign events known in Blighty as “hustings.” Johnson’s refusal to address what had happened at his home, where he lives with his girlfriend, only kept the subject alive; as of Sunday, Hunt was using it against him for all it was worth, and Johnson, who a few days before had held a solid lead among all voters, was trailing in the polls, although he still had more Tories in his camp than Hunt did. Which is probably good news, given that Johnson – a friend of Donald Trump – is, despite his past wobbling on Theresa May’s lousy EU “deal,” perhaps the closest thing that the Conservative Party has to a Donald Trump, and thus the man most likely to make Brexit, at long last, a reality.

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