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MICHAEL WHITE: The lines separating the list of Number 10 hopefuls

Michael Gove, the "creative political fixer" in the Tory leadership contest. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Running the rule over the Tory leadership candidates – and why we can only hope their campaigning gets better.

Heavens to Betsy, doesn’t the Peterborough by-election seem a long time ago? Mini sensation after micro-shock breaks upon the tidal Thames at Westminster. Tsunamis, as elected agitator, Mark Francois MP, would call them, ripples to you and me. Ripples of renewed agitation of allegations of anti-Semitism, sex-pesting and vote-rigging against Labour. Of narcotic hypocrisy against Michael (“Whatever you do, Boris, don’t pull out”) Gove. Of financial profligacy on top of their Brexit madness against most of the Tory leadership candidates, including “Abolish VAT” Gove and “Cut my tax bill” Johnson. Haven’t they noticed, the economy has stalled.

Each folly helps to keep the others in proportion, a bit like listening to Donald Trump’s 6.5 untruths on an average day. After a while you come to expect Esther McVey to threaten to suspend parliament or Dominic Raab to tolerate no dissent in cabinet. So I’m still struggling with this week’s Big Idea that the environment secretary’s brief, youthful flirtation with Bolivian Marching Powder debars him from the keys to No.10 – but not all the other puffed-up lightweights, bullies and hypocrites, who dominate the field. We’ll come to the honourable exceptions.

Talking about Bolivia’s most famous export, it’s Brexit Marching Powder that should alarm us all more. It is the gateway drug to Nigel Farage, to the sinister and intolerant forces which lurk in the shadows behind him, increasingly visible to many, if not to him. After three years spent watching Theresa May snorting her own red lines without much visible effect – not even a frenzied dash through a cornfield – how much more can we be expected to take?

A lot more, I fear. The media loves nothing better than to hurl the lazy charge of ‘hypocrisy’ at politicians. The painful truth is we’re all hypocrites in our diverse ways, especially those who smugly insist they’re not, even in Fleet Street. So you would never guess that successive governments’ failure to tackle the funding of elderly care had anything to do with tabloid campaigns against the ‘death tax’, later rebranded the ‘dementia tax’.

The MPs’ expenses scandal was serious, but journalists of all people should have recused themselves from mentioning it. So should UKIP, the Brexit Party Mark I. Do you remember the “Cocaine Traces in Commons Press Gallery” tabloid shocker! Left by MPs, it was claimed. Don’t think so.

As with the snitch who shopped Gove for his private coke confession, there’s been relatively little media interest in the culprit’s identity, which is not always the case. Do our great newspapers so love to back a winner, especially one who promises them a reliable stream of colourful outrage, that they will gamble the country’s future? Or are they just confident that the Trouserless Trappist of Uxbridge will destroy himself again when he finally breaks his silence for more than a cosy sound-bite ‘interview’ and very large picture in the Sunday Times. School of Trump again.

In Saturday’s Times Tory ex-MP, Matthew Parris, penned one of the most melancholy columns I have ever read about frontrunner Johnson’s frivolous dishonesty and shabby dishonour, his breath-taking and costly inattention to detail as London mayor, his shaming interlude as the worst foreign secretary in living memory. He might wing a quick election, but would fall apart within a year as reality overwhelms the “magic”, warns Parris.

The 130,000 Tory inactivists who will – astonishingly – pick a new prime minister for 45 million voters so far show little sign of caring. Perhaps most of them really are entryists from UKIP or the BNP, foreign oligarchs or Russian bots. The vetting process for membership certainly seems lax. What we do know, as Alastair Campbell pointed out here last week, is that only 20% of them voted for their own party in May’s EU election. How weird is that?

Pending the cull of ten surviving candidates – yes, ten – we must all endure five weeks of campaigning which we can only hope gets better than it has been so far. The financial profligacy – Swedish services on Texan taxes – is such that the sober number-crunchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) tear their hair. Gove’s expert-lite tilt at the £140 billion VAT revenues is “the biggest, riskiest and most disruptive change in the tax system” for 50 years, says the IFS’s Paul Johnson, this at a time when 166 countries (but not the US) now have VAT. And Gove is meant to be the clever one.

Numbers, runners as well as cash, do matter because the crowded field allows most half-baked policy statements to escape serious demolition in the press and on MPs’ behind-closed-doors hustings.

The bunfight also allows the gaffe-magnet of a frontrunner to get away with hiding in a broom cupboard. It’s the same in the US. The notable exception is Massachusetts’ big-brain senator, Elizabeth Warren – now she’d have beaten Trump last time. But an even more crowded field of 20 Democrat wannabes is also conspicuous for its lack of serious policy proposals. In both countries this is an ominous symptom of civic decay and the lurch towards feel-good populism.

Let’s not get too gloomy. Feather-brained and sinister populists don’t win every round.

In Denmark last week the centre-left Social Democrats finally thumped the populist Danish People’s Party (DPP), down from 21.1% in 2015 to 8.7%, from 37 seats to 16. But it was done at the cost of pushing immigration policy rightwards. Andrej Babis, ‘the Czech Donald Trump’, rich, scandal-prone and PM, faces a no confidence vote over alleged subsidy fraud after a huge protest in Prague, one not broken up by police as it once would have been – and was, brutally so, in distant Sudan.

Australia’s new populist government seems to have sanctioned a serious police assault on the country’s free press. But in Russia – Hallelujah!! – public, intellectual and media solidarity in defence of an arrested journalist has forced the security state to back down (so far).

Alas for the EU, which has been standing up to Babis’ alleged conflicts of interest, Italy’s all-conquering ‘deputy’ PM, Matteo Salvini, is bullying the courts over immigration. He’s also packing state TV (RAI) with reactionary cronies, some pro-Putin. Even worse, the parliament in Rome has just voted to create a parallel currency to ease Italy’s monetary and fiscal distress. If implemented, that could eventually break up the euro, a chaotic prospect even if half-deserved. Brexit by other means.

There again, the German Greens are flexing new muscles, which may do some good. Oh yes, and Emmanuel Macron used his D-Day speech in Normandy to remind the visiting Tweeter-in-Chief that supra-national bodies like Nato, the UN, the EU too, were part of the legacy of victory. Even Mexico stuck one on the old fraud when he backed down over those disruptive tariff threats which would damage the US economy as much as Mexico.

They push up prices but don’t much help the Rust Belt. US protectionism seems to have expanded Washington’s trade deficit with the EU as well as with China – up $3.5 billion and $6.2 billion respectively in March.

That’s the thing about sugar-rush populist policies: the feel-good merchants need to act fast and keep moving so they are far from the scene when failure looms.

Which brings us back to Brexit-voting Peterborough, where Nigel Farage was seen slipping away from the count by a back door a few minutes before it was confirmed that Labour had scraped home by 600 votes. Perhaps he went to place a late bet. But this was a bad result not just for that screeching political baby, the Brexit Party. It was bad for all the main parties, there’s no hiding it.

The Official Tories were humiliated, a final snub to Theresa May, as impatient voters flocked to their Provisional Wing. But that was priced in. Despite winning, Labour was stabbed in several tender spots. In Lisa Forbes it has yet another Corbyn-loyal MP of no great, evident quality, famous only for some ugly social media activity around Zionist conspiracies.

Watching her squirm on TV, it struck me that she more likely falls into the useful idiot category than the serious nasty. Anti-Semitism allegations – denied by her – against Ealing Central and Acton’s Rupa Huq, for whom I once voted, seem more troubling. But it’s best to keep an open mind until Jeremy’s rigorous investigation is completed – if we all live long enough.

On the bigger issue – yes, Brexit is a bigger issue for Britain than anti-Semitism – the result will have confirmed the leader’s minders in their cynical belief that they can coast into power on a combination of Brexit ambiguity and Tory incompetence. Last week’s revelation that Corbyn’s daft old dad was still donating to the Stalinist Daily Worker/Morning Star in April 1940 (at a time when decent communists were leaving the party over the Hitler-Stalin Pact) should cost him a few more Labour votes. Of course, it may possibly gain him some from the Brexit Party. We live in strange times.

Look a little harder, as Jeremy won’t, and pro-Remain, pro-second referendum voters can take comfort from the Liberal Democrats’ strong 12% showing in Peterborough – up 9% on 2017 – and from further evidence in this East Midlands swing seat that Farage can whip up a good performance on an EU-style election, all party list and PR voting. But neither he nor his local Brexit mule can win a first-past-the-post contest, they’re too toxic for too many voters.

Alas, the result was good for the Trouserless Trappist, who preys on Tory fear of Farage, and his own misplaced claim that he his bumbling charisma will flatten Nigel’s. I will believe that when I see it happen, face-to-face, live on TV. Years ago when Norman Tebbit and Labour’s Austin Mitchell (both pro-Brexit) gave up their weekly head-to-head on Sky News they were replaced by, would you believe it, Polly Toynbee and Boris. But the pairing was quickly scrapped when it became clear that Johnson simply didn’t know enough to keep his end up. Farage doesn’t do detail either, but he knows more than BoJo and is much more ruthless.

What the newly-discplined Johnson is successfully doing is sitting out the contest while rival candidates implode or shoot each other. It is much what the Corbyn family’s pals did as they approached Warsaw in 1945. Red Army generals cynically sat it out across the Vistula while the Polish resistance’s uprising and Germans slaughtered each other. So far so bad. Thoughtful Sam Gyimah, the only avowed second referendum advocate (“worse than admitting cocaine,” said one MP), has dropped out. Ex-chief whip Mark (‘Who he?’) Harper cannot be far behind, assuming you knew he was running.

So must the quixotic Rory Stewart, much mocked for his walkabouts and his social media campaigning, but his stature enhanced by refreshing policy honesty (no, not about that opium pipe, keep that to yourself, Rory) and the limited Brexit choices that will confront the winner in 11th hour July. Have you noticed that my list of fallen are all Remainers and realists? Wait, I haven’t finished yet. I was pleasantly surprised by Matt Hancock’s mid-week performance in John Humphrys’ Radio 4 torture chair.

The health secretary hasn’t been much seen in the department lately, so officials say. But he can claim to have resolved the junior doctors’ four-year pay dispute and says that understanding what the other side wants and can accept is a negotiating lesson that should be applied to Brexit.

Good. At 40, a fast-tracked special advisor to George Osborne who got lucky (it’s all about timing), he’s a whipper-snapper putting down a marker for the future. That sets him apart from other no-hopers in the contest, not to mention non-contestants making bets on the winner. Most are simply hoping to shore up flagging ministerial careers.

Like Stewart, the self-styled pro-business techie Hancock has avoided the magic thinking of tax cuts and better services. He says parliament will not allow a no-deal Brexit so the real choice ahead is a deal or no Brexit. The EU will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, but will tweak May’s political declaration to accommodate a finite Irish backstop, if one is ever needed. It sounds more grown up than a US president close to twice his age likening those Irish lanes to his own Mexican non-wall. But Hancock is a 100/1 outsider according to those oh-so-infallible bookies.

Cheer up. Daytime TV’s Esther McVey is also 100/1 and her presumption in standing will quickly be exposed. Like Sajid Javid, clever child of a clever immigrant family, she has a good backstory. Like Gove she spent some childhood time in care. That marks the future adult and should expand their empathetic horizons. But backstory isn’t enough or Andrea Leadsom’s alleged colourful family history in the City and the Channel Islands – see claims in Private Eye – might have sunk her by now.

Never mind, Leadsom and McVey are ‘Leave on October 31, deal or not’ candidates, though the former believes in “mini deals”. McVey is not alone in erroneously believing Britain can withhold its £39 billion EU divorce bill and use the money to boost public sector wages or cut Boris’s higher rate tax bill, his own idea. I thought we were spending it on the NHS? But Esther shares with Dominic Raab a willingness to prorogue parliament if a McVey cabinet fears MPs might thwart its plan for a hard Brexit. Briefly the contest’s potential tie-breaker, self-styled hard man Raab’s accident-prone star has fallen. So has the home secretary’s. Javid and Raab’s public personalities are about as charming as a wasp sting – Theresa May’s if you prefer.

If it comes down to Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Gove as the eliminatory rounds of MPs ballots proceed in the weeks ahead, that is as this miserable field should evolve. Rascal-to-Watch Gove, the creative political fixer in the race, isn’t finished yet. Nor is Hunt. The born-again Brexiteer talks most sense on Brexit, but is dogged by managerialist moderation and a magnetism as gripping as Corbyn’s.

The mystery and the wild card is Johnson. With endorsements from Priti Useless Patel, Cornish Brexit diehard Steve Baker, IDS (“Boris has changed”), Failing Graying and Jake O’Mogg, the Irish asset manager (where is he?), how much more punishment can a stealth candidate take without his 4/7 odds collapsing?

How much nonsense can Bent Bananas Boris talk about leaving on October 31 without Brussels taking cryogenic revenge on its old tormentor? Backing Boris after all we’ve learned about him is like investing our pensions savings with Brexit-backing fund manager, Neil Woodford. His reputation is being shredded, his clients distressed. But Neil’s still coining it in.

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