It’s officially week two of six of the Tory leadership contest and already the struggle to find new and exciting displacement activities for the fact that absolutely none of them have got a clue what to do about Brexit is already hotting up.
On Monday morning, around a hundred Westminster based political journalists had twenty unrecorded, unbroadcasted minutes with each of them. Apart from Boris Johnson, of course. He didn’t turn up. At some point, it is dimly possible the Tory party might work out that they might be doing something really quite stupid by installing a new prime minister whose personal, professional and political life is such a thermonuclear embarrassment that he cannot face any questions at all from anyone. But that point is a very long way off yet.
It’s an enthralling tactic from Johnson, who appears to see the Tory leadership contest as a particularly poor quality series of The Apprentice, and is just waiting for all the other deluded narcissists to take themselves out before he clambers out from under the boardroom desk to tell Lord Sugar that, unfortunately, he’s now fired everyone else so you’re stuck with me.
Rory Stewart went first, who has had such good traction with his constantly repeated point that all the other candidates are offering is a macho threat to get a better deal from Brussels they won’t get that he is now adapting it to answer all questions.
He now doesn’t just think that Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson are telling the country the are so big and strong that only they can get a better deal out of Brussels.
He also thinks Tony Blair thinks he can get, and win a second referendum because he, also, is so “macho” that he thinks he’s right.
Stewart considers himself the antidote to all this machismo. He, we are led to believe, is so unmacho, so unfailingly polite, that when the European Union doesn’t give him any concessions he can succeed where Theresa May failed, and just make the House of Commons suddenly compromise on it all. He will make enough MPs vote for the withdrawal deal because, well, Rory Stewart will be prime minister, and so they will all suddenly vote for this thing they hate just to, you know, not upset anyone. He will drive through the Brexit deal out of sheer, awkward politeness. It will be a Mustn’t Grumble Brexit.
It may not happen. Most of the rest of the morning was devoted to arguments about Donald Trump retweeting Katie Hopkins’s tweet about Sadiq Khan, which Sajid Javid didn’t agree with, nor did Rory Stewart. Jeremy Hunt did, 150 per cent, but later changed his mind. None of it made one iota of different to the great unshiftable obstacle that is currently suffocating the nation.
Someone had the temerity to ask Sajid Javid what, while a very senior figure at Deutsche Bank during the financial crisis, he had done to prevent it. We learned that none of it was Sajid Javid’s fault because he was in Asia at the time, where nothing went wrong. We also learned it was all Gordon Brown’s fault, for deregulating the City of London. The very thing that made Sajid Javid unimaginably rich could also be used, by Sajid Javid, to attack Gordon Brown, to further Sajid Javid’s chances of becoming the next prime minister. What larks.
Sajid Javid also admitted to being perhaps a “less capable public speaker” than some of his rivals. He didn’t, when he was younger, “spend his spare time at debating clubs.”
A sharp point, this, not least as most of Michael Gove’s time in this leadership contest has been spent praising his own speeches, or pointing out how scared Jeremy Corbyn will be of him at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Michael Gove, aged 51, has still not been told that the world is not just some rather large sideroom of the Oxford Union. Michael Gove wanting to be prime minister because he is, in his own view, really really really good at debating, has been the contest’s low point thus far, but only because Boris Johnson is not taking part in it.
Still, Javid certainly made the room sit up and think more than any of the candidates.
“The reason I got into banking,” he said at one point, “is because ... most Asians go into jobs that you need to take an exam for, like chartered accountant, dentist. It’s not because that’s what their parents think is the only thing open to them – the reason that happens is because their parents feel that discrimination is so inevitable in professions where you don’t have to take exams that the best way to get in is to have a piece of paper. So I did banking because it’s much more meritocratic.”
How aggressively one’s heart bled for Javid in this moment is a matter of personal taste. Imagining the young The Saj, fresh out of Exeter University, striking a blow for the fairer society by reluctantly taking up his calling in the City is a slightly hard sell. One can only imagine how stunned he will have been to learn, long after this point of course, about the astronomical salaries available.
All of which is to say, the only one laughing at the end of it, of course, was Boris Johnson, who again managed to get through another leadership hustings without saying or doing anything stupid, by not turning up.
It can’t last forever, of course, this reimagining of British parliamentary democracy as a car radio with security settings that are well out of date, and that he has worked out how to steal. For the moment, the joke’s on us. That phase won’t last forever though.