by Stephen Tall on August 13, 2014
Here’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I’m talking Boris and what motivates folk to want to stand for Parliament – or in my case, why I didn’t. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.
Boris Johnson’s dance of the seven veils is over: he will, to no-one’s surprise, stand for an as yet unnamed seat at the next election. The titillation has pre-occupied Westminster journalists for months, as each seat hoves into view – Croydon South, Reigate, North West Hampshire, Richmond, Louth and Horncastle – only to be discarded by London’s mayor in turn. But, at last, he stands before us, revealed. It is a teasing performance which has seduced the watching media. Not least because we know exactly whose head Boris would like to see delivered on a platter as reward for his dance: that of the current occupant of Number 10.
Boris makes little secret of his leadership ambitions (“If the ball came loose from the back of a scrum…”) but the paradox is clear. If the Conservatives do well at the next election, Cameron will stay, at least to see through the European in/out referendum, maybe then handing over to George Osborne (who will, by then, have been both Chancellor and Foreign Secretary). If the Conservatives under-perform (but not too badly) and Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, then Cameron will go, but his party will most likely opt for a safe (if dull) pair of hands, a Theresa May or even a Philip Hammond.
It’s only if the Conservatives absolutely tank in May – an outright Labour win which leaves the Tories licking their wounds – that Boris’s obvious star quality will come into its own. The doubts about his credibility as a potential Prime Minister will recede as his Heineken ability to reach those parts of the electorate no other politician can becomes all important. Boris’s best chance of success, then, depends upon his party’s imminent failure.
And then what? Suppose Boris does confound expectations (just as he did to become a two-term Tory Mayor of Labour-leaning London) and reach the summit of his ambitions: what does he actually want to do? His time as Mayor has given us few clues. Most of the popular successes with which he’s most closely associated – ‘Boris bikes’, Crossrail, the Olympics – he inherited. His famous Margaret Thatcher lecture last year – the one where he advocated vigorous shaking of cereal packets to propel cornflakes to the top – re-inforced his reputation for colourful metaphors and his zeal for red in tooth and claw capitalism.
But as for actual policies… well, those aren’t really for politicians like Boris: they’re too small, humdrum. What you get from Boris is freewheeling showmanship, the P.T. Barnum of British politics. Which means the role of Leader of the Opposition would fit him to a tee. Power without responsibility would allow him to rail against Prime Minister Miliband, who would soon run into trouble with his own party as the continuing austerity cuts bite harder.
(This is, by the way, why Miliband is, from his own point of view, quite right to reject demands for the EU referendum: imagine having to lead the fight against the Boris-led Tories, the right-wing media and Ukip? Regardless of who you think would win, this slug-fest would dominate Miliband’s first two-and-a-half years as PM and probably lose him the subsequent election – most voters who really care about a referendum are unlikely to vote Labour anyway.)
So yes, I can see Boris as a joke-cracking, trouble-making, mickey-taking leader of the Conservatives, harrying Labour in government, parrying demands for him to set out his alternative. But as Prime Minister? Standing up to Putin, finessing peace in the Middle East, or cajoling reform from our European neighbours? Sorry, but I just can’t see it. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner advises: “He needs to get serious: to show that he has the gravitas and judgement to steer Britain through the troubled waters that the country is likely to face for some years to come.” But, of course, by getting serious Boris will no longer be Boris. He cannot be both court jester and monarch: he will have to choose, and soon. David Cameron, when once asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister, replied “because I think I’ll be good at it”. Boris needs to find a better reason than “because I think I’ll be better than him at it”.
To be clear, I’m not knocking Boris’s decision. To choose to seek election to Parliament, and to do so in the genuine belief that you have something positive to contribute, is a Good Thing. (And a Thing too readily forgotten by we armchair pontificators.)
Once upon a time, I thought about doing so myself. Indeed, in 2003 as a twice-elected Lib Dem councillor in Oxford, I started filling in my application form to become a prospective parliamentary candidate. I got most of the way through it, too, but stumbled over the following question: ‘Which elements of Liberal Democrat Policy would you like to see changed and why?’ By the time I’d started on my second side of A4 I’d come to the conclusion maybe this lark wasn’t for me.
Not that blind obedience to the party line is expected. Indeed, in the Lib Dems such conformity would (rightly) be regarded with suspicion. I’ve long reckoned that agreeing with 60-70% of your party’s policies is probably as good as you can hope for, so disagreeing with a substantial minority is par for the course.
But there was one Lib Dem policy which I thought utterly barking: our campaign to abolish tuition fees. “It is a policy that is seriously flawed, and risks condemning British universities and students to an increasingly mediocre future,” I wrote in January 2005. There was, I thought, no way I could press my claims on the electorate as a putative Lib Dem MP when I didn’t believe in one of the key planks of the party’s manifesto. So I decided to depart the stage before I’d had the chance even to play the part of understudy.
I could add in here a waspish comment about those Lib Dem MPs who also thought the party’s tuition fees pledge to be bonkers but kept schtum and felt few qualms about ditching it after the election. But, in all honesty, my overwhelming sense is of relief at a bullet dodged. If there’s one thing worse than being an MP it’s being a parliamentary candidate, expected to do the same amount of work but without the salary, staff, resources or time to back it up.
I stand in not a little awe of those who make the sacrifices needed. Sure, for some, like Boris, the campaign is simply a stepping stone towards their destinied glory. But, for most, it’s a genuine wish to serve. And if you think that’s a load of pious bullshit, you know what you can do? Put your deposit where your mouth is, get out of that comfy armchair, and stand for election.