Most politicians struggle with the “vision thing”. In a bid to give a sense of purpose and direction to their bids for power, they conjure up up vague and platitudinous versions of a better tomorrow. Tony Blair spoke of remaking Britain as a “young country” overflowing with ‘schoolsnhospitals’. Gordon Brown vowed to lock in stability and put an end to Tory boom and bust.
Events dictated otherwise. Blair is now reviled as the man who took Britain to war in Iraq on the basis of a lie. As we await publication of the Chilcot report this week, there is now talk of arraigning the once supremely popular former Prime Minister as a war criminal. Brown presided over the biggest bust since the Great Depression. David Cameron has gay marriage to his name. Few political leaders get to write their own epitaph.
So, in some ways, the current crop of contenders for the Tory crown are fortunate. They don’t have to go looking for dragons to slay. A very large, very fierce dragon lies snarling in their path in the shape of the European Union.
We have been here before. In May 1940, no one was in any doubt of the challenge facing Churchill. Across the Channel, Hitler’s armies were at our gate. The challenge was simple and awesome – to defeat those armies and save Western civilisation. A defiant Churchill and an equally defiant British people rose to that Herculean task.
Similarly, if less heroically, Margaret Thatcher faced the “enemy within”. By the late 1970s Britain had become virtually ungovernable. Union power was supreme, strikes were a daily occurrence, managers cowered in their offices, and the economy was on its knees. Slowly, through the 1980s, she turned round the ship of state and laid the foundations for the revival of enterprise and free markets.
Today’s challenge is no less daunting. To the astonishment and horror of the British establishment, the people have voted decisively to remove one of the central pillars of the post-war settlement. Britain is leaving the EU and turning its face to the wider world. Like a child coming of age, the country is to stand on its own two feet and learn to govern itself without recourse to its parents in Brussels. No longer will ministers be able to shelter behind the skirts of the Eurocrats and, more in sorrow than in anger, insist that they are unable to act because they are bound by the rules of the Union.
It should be a liberating moment, a time of great joy and excitement. But judging by the protests of the Remain camp, it is anything but. The sense of defeatism that has hung over this country in the many decades since the loss of Empire lies heavy in the air, even to the point that some are suggesting that the verdict of the 17 million plus should be put to one side.
Home Secretary Theresa May, who supported Remain but hid away during the long campaign, is favourite to replace David Cameron, who also supported Remain but did not hide away. May has the support of more than 100 Conservative MPs, many of whom were also backers of Remain. According to opinion polls, she is also the clear choice of Tory voters to take over the reins of power. The case for her is that she is a political heavyweight, a safe pair of hands, and someone unimpressed by the shallow, bitchy, gossipy world of Westminster.
The case against her is legion – not least that as Home Secretary she presided over an explosion in immigration and further weakening of our feeble border defences. Notoriously, she once branded her party as “nasty”, giving huge encouragement to her New Labour opponents and grossly undermining Tory morale. She is fully in thrall to the forces of political correctness and has never been known for decisive political action – May Be and May Be Not is how she is known to her critics in Parliament and the media.
May has said that Brexit means Brexit, but is that enough? The scale of the challenge facing the new government – to extricate the country from the suffocating embrace of Brussels – is so great that surely it can only be entrusted to a true believer – someone passionately committed to the cause of re-establishing Britain as a sovereign, self-governing and independent country. The task is going to take the sheer bloody-minded determination that Thatcher brought to slaying the dragon of industrial strife more than 30 years ago.
Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom all campaigned vociferously and energetically for Leave. But Gove is damaged by his betrayal of his erstwhile friend Boris Johnson. Fox suffers from the fact that he has been around for a long time and was forced to resign in questionable circumstances as Defence Secretary. That leaves Leadsom, the least well known and the least experienced of the three. She has invoked the memory of Mrs Thatcher in making her initial pitch. She is right about one thing. It will take another Thatcher to set the country free.