Writing this column from London amid an intense heatwave, the meltdown in the British Conservative Party offers no end of lessons for politicians and polities everywhere.
Last Thursday Boris Johnson’s gravity-defying political survivalism was brought crashing down to earth as he was forcibly ejected — “by the herd”, as he dubbed his Tory colleagues — from his tumultuous near three-year stint as British prime minister.
Nothing if not his instinct for survivalism was extraordinary. As former party chief whip Andrew Mitchell noted: “It’s like the death of Rasputin. He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river and still he lives.”
But for a politician deemed to have an excess of the nine proverbial feline lives, Johnson succumbed to the one rule of politics which even egregious outliers such as the rule-bending, egregious, truth-shifting political mega-star could not defy. It was defined by another Johnson from another country in a different age. President Lyndon Johnson, whose mastery of the US Senate propelled him to the White House, said the first law of politics was to be able to count.
And when Boris Johnson watched an avalanche of more than 50 ministerial grandees and minor government appointees resign from their posts and demand his resignation, he knew with reluctance the game was up.
Johnson’s resignation as Tory leader last Thursday set in train a crowded contest for the succession. For the winner, due to be announced early September, the top prize in British politics and a pole position in the global councils that matter: prime minister of the UK.
Because of the background noise in SA politics, most of us are hardwired to check the ethnic identity of candidates for office. Strange indeed for a country whose proud constitutional boast is “nonracialism”, but such are the facts of political life on the southern tip of Africa, as every appointment is subject to racial box-ticking which usually and regrettably trumps every other consideration.
Here on this island between the North Atlantic and the North Sea, watching the contest to lead Britain’s party of the right, there is a fascinating apparent contradiction in the runners and riders for the top office.
Seven of the 12 candidates are from ethnic minority backgrounds, five are women, and the party most identified with the old boys’ club and the establishment offers a diverse field unmatched by the party of the left and keeper of the ideological flame of nonracialism and feminism: The Labour Party.
This has not gone unnoticed by the commentariat here. Jawal Iqbal, writing in The Times on Tuesday, waspishly observed: “Labour leaders tend to be men from a small patch of North London.”
And indeed it is the Conservative Party which has produced the only two female prime ministers of the country, one of huge consequence (Margaret Thatcher) and one of disastrous feebleness (Theresa May). And if current favourite (a big if, given the dirty tricks unleashed against him) Rishi Sunak wins, the Tories will break new ground again by providing Britain with its first nonwhite premier.
In the Sunday Telegraph, voice of mainstream right-wing opinion, Inaya Folarin Iman, wrote: “Of course Britain is ready for an ethnic minority prime minister.” She cited research polls which found “84% of Britons were comfortable with the idea”. Incidentally, it would be fascinating if a SA pollster were to ask the same question back home and gauge local comfort levels on the same issue.
Of course this is not how the left views diversity and race. As Iman puts it, “[it’s] not because this identity confers particular disadvantages or meaning in itself, but because of its very opposite. It will exemplify that race or identity is a matter of happenstance, not destiny, contrary to what we’re led to believe.”
Indeed, ethnicity and national background in the Tory race is hardly predictive of ideology or policy.
Thus, hardline home secretary Priti Patel, whose parents fled the Ugandan tyranny of Idi Amin, is the mother of anti-refugee and asylum policies which include the repatriation of illegals to Rwanda.
Then from West African hails another top contender, who secured the backing of big Tory beast Michael Gove, Kemi Badenoch. Her parents are Nigerian, and she was partly schooled in Lagos and describes herself as “a middle class Yoruba schoolgirl”. In one weekend interview she spoke of the depressing economic conditions in Nigeria in the 1990s, specifically citing electricity power cuts, which sent her parents scuttling back to the UK.
Yet this candidate is the scourge of both the woke and the practitioners of identity politics. She compared the latter to “coercive control”. And she stoutly defended Britain, which she claims is “falsely criticised as oppressive to minorities and immoral because it enforces its own borders”.
The new leader — whoever she or he is — will face a sky blackening with the proverbial chickens coming home to roost: a cost-of-living crisis unseen for 40 years, taxation levels at 70-year highs (cutting these is the real ground of the current contest) and a government which in British terms has simply been in power for too long. By the time of the next election, the Conservatives will have led the country for 14 years, exceeding even the long years of the Blair-Brown governments which ended after 13 years in 2010.
Shakespeare’s famous “whirligig of time which brings in his revenges” is one of the most powerful antidotes here to the abuse of power, and the Conservatives are likely to lose the next elections whomever the party selects to lead it. Still, the diversity and refreshing candour of the contest is a reminder of why the Conservatives were dubbed by The Economist as “the world’s most successful party”. Its ability to refresh itself is a key factor.
One final aspect of the ousting of Boris Johnson last week, which should induce envy and despair in the heart of every SA democrat and constitutionalist, was watching the power of accountability and the politics of consequence in full and bloody action.
Last Wednesday the most powerful politician in Britain was subjected on the same afternoon to a one-hour merciless grilling on the scandal which toppled him during Prime Minister’s Questions, where the questions were as ferociously hostile from some of his own MPs as they were from the serried ranks of the opposition.
Immediately thereafter, Johnson had to humble himself before the parliamentary liaison committee, where, in excruciating detail, he was forced to explain, defend and excuse his conduct in office. No respite when he went home to Number Ten Downing Street, where a contingent of cabinet ministers, one of whom he had appointed to office the day before (chancellor of exchequer Nadhim Zahawi, a refugee from Saddam’s Iraq, and another leadership contender) demanded his resignation.
And back home? Our compromised speaker of parliament refuses to allow parliamentary scrutiny of President Ramaphosa’s sofa-stuffing burglary. And the top man himself? He says nothing, sees nothing and does nothing.
(Note that after column deadline, Priti Patel, Home Secretary, announced her decision not to contest the leadership)
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA