5 things about this week (17 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2019

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Rory Stewart is the undisputed breakout star of the Conservative party leadership election. What started out, seemingly, as a quixotic tourist excursion into the Westminster souk – with his random Rory Walks filmed for Twitter – has become something altogether more serious.

He’s bagged the support of the de fact deputy PM, David Lidington, as well as (reportedly) the current PM, lest we forget, Theresa May. There is a real prospect he’ll secure the 33 MP votes needed to make the second round cut and secure himself a place at the BBC debating table against Boris Johnson.

That he’s found himself the star attraction is a mix of luck and skill.

Lucky because Mr Johnson’s decision to eschew any public appearances has left a gap in the market for a candidate with fluency and charisma. Lucky, too, because he’s the only candidate (after Sam Gyimah pulled out) to have the guts to begin confronting his own party with the tough choices and trade-offs any form of Brexit necessitates.

The skill, of course, comes from making the best of his own luck. It says much about the current condition of the Conservative party, let alone today’s politics, that being thoughtful, speaking in sentences that aren’t pre-scripted slogans, recognising compromise as a virtue, and displaying compassion and humility mark Rory Stewart out as an exceptional candidate.

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For all the current Rory-mania, on SW1 Twitter at any rate, the reality is (1) he won’t win, and (2) even if he does, he can’t actually win: the Conservative party would split if he were elected.

But, then, what has become increasingly clear from this contest is that none of the candidates has a plausible Brexit plan which withstands scrutiny. They are all variants of “Theresa May’s deal but done by me”; which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament. And, failing that, a no-deal Brexit (bar Rory) which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament — and, even if it does by default, will likely trash the Conservative party brand for a generation.

No wonder Boris is suddenly all publicity shy.

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What is Boris Johnson’s plan? He must have one, or at any rate the campaign team in charge of him must have one. I just don’t buy the punditry which asserts “he’s not thought it through, he just wants to be PM”.

My best guess is that he will do his best to surf his new-PM honeymoon – populist tax cuts and public spending increases, a pledge to deliver Brexit by any means possible – and engineer a cut-and-run dash to the polls. It’s not impossible it won’t work, by which I mean it could, just about maybe, resurrect the Conservative party’s poll ratings enough to get them back in power with a wafer-thin majority.

But what happens beyond that? Anyone?

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It was Father’s Day this week, and to mark it, James Kirkup* wrote a really good account of his own decision to achieve a better work/family balance by choosing to cut his hours. After suggesting the next Chancellor looks at the affordability of childcare, he points out:

In the end, though, this isn’t something that Government alone can deal with. The real changes that working fathers need are cultural. Employment law doesn’t discriminate. Men have just the same right to ask for flexible working as women. It’s just that most don’t.

Since I went part-time, I have lost count of the number of friends who have said that they would like to do the same but don’t feel they can even ask their employer about it. Too many workplaces are still dominated by a male-driven long-hours culture. ‘The guys above me all got where they are by working all hours and missing their kids growing up. They think that a man who’s not willing to do the same isn’t serious about the job,’ says a friend who works in finance.

Encouragingly, there are some signs that things are changing. Big employers are increasingly recognising the importance of helping staff balance work and family. Younger men are more willing to take the plunge and ask for flexibility. But they still need role models in senior positions.

We need more high-profile men who do big important jobs to show that you can succeed at work without 60-hour weeks and missing sports days and birthdays. Believe me, working less to spend more time with your kids really is something you will never regret.

I’m currently working a 90% contract (ie, every other Friday off) for just these reasons; having taken two months shared parental leave last year.

It means I get to watch my pre-schooler’s progress in his gym classes and my toddler’s joy in the swimming pool.

It also means I get to experience the frustration of persuading them to eat breakfast or to put their coat on (or take it off) — because not all parent is full of Instagrammable warmth and smiles.

In short, it means I get a more full-on parenting experience: the amazing, the boring, the tears, and the laughter.

* Extra kudos to James for being the only male journalist to have had the courage consistently to take politicians and his media colleagues to task for their repeated failures to stick up for women’s sex-based rights amid the current woke clamour for gender self-identification. His latest piece — reporting on the NSPCC’s decision to drop Munroe Bergdorf, a model and trans activist, as a celebrity ambassador because she has in the past invited vulnerable children to contact her online in apparent breach of the charity’s own safeguarding principles — is typically on-point.

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I’ve been continuing to watch Thatcher: A Very British Revolution. Its archive footage is fascinating — I’d never before seen the clip of her tearing up when recollecting her father, Alfred Roberts, being elbowed aside as an alderman (an eerie foreshadowing of her own defenestration) in an interview with Miriam Stoppard. And her full-throated advocacy of free market capitalism is a striking contrast to the current Conservative leadership hopefuls (not one of whom named the economy as their top priority when asked on Channel 4’s debate). The lack of critical analysis — the series over-relies on the hindsight reflections of those who worked with her closely — is, however, irritating.

I’ve also begun, belatedly, watching BBC2’s Summer of Rockets. Nothing Stephen Poliakoff writes/directs is ever anything less than interesting. Plus it stars Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens. With luck, I’ll ave enough time to binge my way through the Poliakoff back catalogue on iPlayer.

I’ve been listening to The Divine Comedy’s new album, Office Politics. I’m not sure it’s my favourite of theirs; in fact, it may well be my least favourite. But I’m still going to listen to it, a lot.

For fun last week, I outsourced my choice of reading matter, asking Twitter ‘I’m in the mood to read a UK political (auto)biography, preferably 20th century. What’s the best one you’ve read?’ Lots of good suggestions. In the end, I’ve plumped for Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher (the daunting length of which had been deterring me) and am listening to Denis Healey’s The Course of My Life (sadly abridged). Then it’ll be John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins.

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It's alright, I caught him. Thanks to the wonderful @flora_westbrook for the gorgeous photos

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