CONSERVATIVE Party members started to receive their ballot papers yesterday. The choice is between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. It seems to be a choice between heart or head.
Jeremy Hunt is a competent minister, having been instrumental as Health Secretary in preventing Labour from being able to use the NHS as a battering ram at General Elections through their strategy of scaring people that they would wake up to a Conservative government implementing a USA-style health system. As Foreign Secretary, his civil servants have been nicer to and about him than his predecessor.
But the position of Foreign Secretary means being outside domestic politics to the point of invisibility unless there is an international crisis, and it is reasonable to argue that part of the job of Foreign Secretary is to ensure that no such crises occur. So Hunt has been in effect invisible. He also got the job only because his predecessor could not serve in a government whose policy on Brexit he did not agree with. On this basis, on Brexit, and perhaps on other issues, Hunt comes across as ‘continuity May’. The Daily Telegraph has been quite cruel in this regard towards Hunt, its political cartoonist depicting Hunt in leopard-skin kitten heels.
But who to choose?
There was a choice of Prime Minister back in May 1940 as well. The selection principle was also one man, one vote. That one man was the outgoing prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and it was his vote on who to recommend to the King to invite to form a government. The choice was between Lord Halifax and Winston Churchill. Halifax was the establishment choice. He was the Foreign Secretary. Churchill was the maverick. He had been brought back into the Cabinet after a decade in the political wilderness. A wartime First Lord of the Admiralty was needed. Churchill had held the job in the Great War.
The choice between Hunt and Johnson seems to be rather like the choice between Halifax and Churchill. There was a military Brexit taking place in 1940, and the establishment was also interested in making a withdrawal agreement with Europe.
During the month of May, Churchill came under increasing pressure to do a deal over Europe. A disturbingly large portion of the British establishment wanted the war to end at all costs before it led to ruin. However a deal with the Bohemian Corporal could have led ruin of a different kind. Churchill was the original ‘No Deal’ politician.
No Deal in 1940 did bring ruin. But it also led to a better world thereafter. Democracy prevailed. There has been no general war between the powers. Churchill was the architect.
So is Boris Johnson our very own Churchill? Not really. Both Johnson and Churchill are/were accomplished writers, making a living by that craft. But Churchill also saw front-line action in at least four major wars.
Restrictions on trade are a form of economic warfare, and it is the threat of this economic warfare coming from Europe that has driven a form of economic appeasement in the form of a withdrawal agreement that signs away our sovereignty in a way that echoes the signing away of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
The Hunt-as-Halifax analogy holds this month too, as Hunt is making quite belligerent noises at last concerning No Deal in the same way that Halifax started making warlike noises 80 years ago last month. But that might be too late for Hunt.
Will No Deal lead to national ruin as it did in 1940? Not quite. Trade wars are reciprocal, and if the UK is blockaded by stiffened EU regulation, it can counter-blockade with regulation of its own. If it is harder for the UK to export cars to the EU, then it might become harder for BMWs to be sold here. People will find it more convenient to buy Toyotas instead. So No Deal is not a one-way street of harm, as factory workers in Bavaria might soon find out.
In hindsight Churchill was seen as the better choice than Halifax, but there were still those, other than the communists, who wanted peace with Nazi Germany. The analogy breaks down here as the EU is not comparable to the New Order. It is closer to Imperial Germany’s Mitteleuropa. Some historians have argued that standing up to the Kaiser delayed the inevitable creation of the EU by 80 years, but they ignore the fact that the Kaiser’s EU would have been created and policed by blood and iron rather than treaties and conferences.
The core problem is that the EU is heading for ‘ever closer union’, and this involves freezing national electorates out of the decision-making process, as was demonstrated this week.
The issue is convenience. Do we want convenience today irrespective of what tomorrow brings, or do we want a bigger say in our tomorrows at the price of inconvenience? Armistice or defiance? How much in toil, tears, and sweat will we have to endure? Will No Deal ultimately lead to a better Britain, despite potential intervening hardship? Is the threat of catastrophe with No Deal as much of a bluff as it was with just voting Leave?
Right now, my heart and head say Johnson. Hunt simply has not turned my head. I am not convinced that the safe pair of hands which shepherded the NHS through the Labour-created austerity years are strong enough to deal with the EU. Johnson had two successful terms running Europe’s greatest city and facing numerous challenges, delegating where necessary, and balancing numerous interests. His skill in running London is demonstrated by the mess his successor is making of the same job. So Johnson has demonstrated comparable, if not superior, skill to Hunt’s.
So at this point, I am going for Johnson. But the polls don’t close for three weeks. Andrew Neil interviews both candidates next Friday. Let’s see how they do in the hot seat.