These politically correct times make it difficult to keep up with the right nouns for thin-skinned online activists. Terms that attempt to pithily describe identities and behaviours are now slurs. You can’t even harass transgender women out of public life any more without somebody calling you a “Terf”; nor can you take pride in defending the centre ground of politics without highly unreasonable individuals defaming you as a centrist. No, the correct terminology for the custodians of legitimate discourse is simply: the grownups.
The latest to win over the hearts and minds of the kind of people who describe themselves as “sensible” is the Tory leadership hopeful Rory Stewart. He’s managed to secure the endorsements of Kirstie Allsopp, David Aaronovitch, James O’Brien and Jane Merrick – all of whom, I’m sure, command a great deal of clout amongst the Ukip-ified Tory membership who will actually decide whether or not he becomes our next prime minister. But even if the politics of Stewart’s campaign don’t quite line up with the priorities of the Conservative grassroots , there’s no denying his cultural appeal. He’s a bit geeky, he’s posh, he makes car crash video content – in short, he’s relentlessly himself.
Or to paraphrase the great political thinker Dolly Parton: Stewart found out who he was and did it on purpose, while ambling around Brick Lane to talk to Bangla uncles about parliament. It’s this ability to master his own amiable incongruity with his surroundings that has led people to greet him as nothing less than the centre-right’s own second coming. Ian Birrell, David Cameron’s speechwriter for the 2010 election campaign, hailed Stewart as “that rare beast in the Westminster bear pit: someone of deep substance, a grownup who has wandered into the noisy kindergarten of Brexit-infected politics”.
I know it might sound childish to suggest that a politician’s voting record is a better indicator of their ideological affinities than their video output, but it’s worth pointing out that aside from a couple of deviations (in favour of gay marriage and against investigations into the Iraq war), Stewart has voted in line with his party on almost every issue of note. And even if self-identifying grownups can turn a blind eye to support for the bedroom tax and votes against the mansion tax, it’s striking that those who’ve spent the past three years railing against Brexit don’t seem to mind that their pin-up still wants us to leave the EU. Or that no one seems particularly bothered by the fact that Stewart’s impassioned condemnations of no deal don’t necessarily mean that he’ll take an opportunity to block it in a parliamentary vote, and that he’s willing to serve in a Boris Johnson cabinet. To my untrained eye, this simply looks like the politics of “always masquerading as a maverick turn”.
I don’t think that the pundit class’s continued love affair with Stewart is hypocritical. Quite the opposite. It makes sense that those who find the naming of their own political tendency offensive are drawn to an MP who balks at the idea that grand gestures should be backed up with the voting behaviour of a centrist ideology that has always worked on the abstraction of cultural values from collective politics – in which capitalism and cosmopolitanism are presented as the compromise position between left and rightwing polarities. As much of the economic and social base of such a politics have fallen away, the former kingmakers of liberal technocrats are left grasping at totems.
Stewart has been remarkably effective at marshalling the projected desires of upper middle-class journalists. His blinky demeanour is a kinder form of Etonian eccentricity than the gale-force bluster of Johnson; his affable civility a soothing contrast to the hard-edged moralising of leftwing populists. He’s an attractive figure around whom others who seem to represent something, and yet stand for nothing, could rally. In a now deleted tweet, the Times columnist Aaronovitch claimed “it is so obvious” that Britain now needs a party in which Stewart, Jo Swinson, Mike Gapes and Jess Phillips could offer something to the voters. Maybe they could even call it Change UK?
I’m old enough to remember when the Independent Group for Change was exalted as a return to grownup politics and was still on its first name. As Chuka Umunna abandons Anna Soubry for the open arms of Vince Cable (despite having sworn never to forgive the Liberal Democrats for their role in inflicting austerity measures on his constituency of Streatham), it’s never been clearer that the adults in the room are just a collection of toddlers stacked up in a trenchcoat. And like toddlers, the breakaway MPs have exposed with each panicky spasm that their grasp of politics is mostly imitative. The Independent Group for Change tried, and failed, to dominate media-tised politics by doing a passable impressions of politicians they had seen elsewhere.
The party formerly known as Change UK was meant to be Umunna’s En Marche!: an electoral vehicle whose acronym sounded a bit like his first name, capable of reviving the centre ground through sheer will alone. Unfortunately for Umunna, the centre ground was still occupied by its prior tenants. There’s no substitute for knowing where your voters are when they’re not on Twitter. What’s more, he had learned the wrong lesson from Emmanuel Macron. Had Umunna been paying attention, he would have been schooled in what happens when centrist illusions make contact with reality. The defining social forces of our time – nationalism, inequality, an aging population – are not so forgiving of flights of political fancy as the commentariat can be to a beguiling posho on the telly.
It shouldn’t escape any of us that the two most influential figures on the direction of our politics are two such beguiling poshos. Nigel Farage and Johnson (who, saving a spectacular crash-and-burn, is likely to become our next prime minister) are experts at appearing to be themselves. It is an act that is also, somehow, not an act, like Lorraine Kelly playing a character called “Lorraine Kelly” for tax purposes. Their establishment pedigree has never seemed to stop Farage and Johnson’s supporters from seeing them as disruptors of the status quo. Nor have either of them ever felt a need to be encumbered by anything so petty as consistency or coherence. Johnson, in his Have I Got News for You days, did a convincing turn as a socially liberal Tory – any lingering reactionary whiff would just be put down to eccentricity and the perils of good breeding.
For the kamikaze Brexiteers, the politics of gesture is heightened as the politics of fantasy, in which “what’s on offer” is liberated entirely from the dreary category of “what’s going to happen”. This isn’t the opposite of “sensible” politics, it’s the logical conclusion of politics being emptied of content. It’s time to grow up and realise the adults are never coming back. Our future, to them, was never anything more than child’s play.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media