When the moment finally came, I found it unexpectedly profound. As I said in my previous post, the Conservative leadership election is historic- the first time that ordinary members of a political party in the UK have, in effect, chosen a Prime Minister.
I said then that I was uncomfortable with such a narrow and self-selected minority of the population having such an important choice - I would much rather (counter-intuitively) that it were restricted further to just the party's MPs in Parliament, who at least have a democratic mandate from a plurality of voters.
But for good or ill, a share of the decision had landed on my desk. It landed later than expected, due to issues with the party's membership records, but after some chasing, I had my ballot paper. What follows is an explanation of how I made my decision - I hope you will forgive the lengthy and perhaps self-indulgent consideration of the topic, but it raised some interesting dilemmas (and I am, after all, a political academic).
The delay in receiving my ballot had at least meant I had no option but to wait until after all the debates and hustings had concluded before voting - a good thing. It also gave me more time to consult people, including local people in Eltham South. I set up an online survey and asked local residents to tell me which of the candidates they preferred as Prime Minister. I felt strongly that I wanted to at least ask those who will be affected by the decision, and take some account of their views.
Just over 40 people responded - a small and of course unscientific sample of opinion - but an interesting indicator nonetheless. The result was pretty clear, and perhaps rather surprising: 61% for Jeremy Hunt, and 39% for Boris Johnson.
So was that it? The people have spoken - Jeremy Hunt it is? Not quite. Although I wanted to hear from the local people I represent, an online poll of a few dozen was not exactly a robust test of public opinion on which I could definitively rely. There have, however, been national polls that point to a similar preference for Hunt amongst voters nationally. That is important when we're selecting a Prime Minister to appeal to the whole electorate, rather than just Conservative members. But polls are polls, and they still required me to make a judgement about whether I found them convincing.
Then there was the other democratic point - following the logic of my belief that elected MPs should hold the final say, should I not simply endorse the view of the parliamentary party, who voted by a clear majority for Boris Johnson? This is a particularly strong argument, and one which I found quite convincing. But should it outweigh all other considerations? And would that result have been the same had MPs not had in mind the fact the final say was with the wider membership? Again, it came back to a judgement call.
So I had two competing democratic arguments which pointed to different conclusions - one to Hunt, one to Johnson. And that was before I even got onto policy considerations and my own views of the merits of the competing candidates. On these fundamental points, my views were also mixed.
Neither candidate was my first choice. That dubious honour goes to my friend Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who I have known for 20 years, and whose energetic leadership campaign I enthusiastically supported. He set out the need for the Conservative Party to offer an energetic, optimistic vision of the future, to deliver a sensible Brexit but not be defined by it, and to ensure we make a moderate One-Nation appeal to future generations. Amen to all that. It is a vital message, and one I know he will continue to champion. But as he has conceded, it was not what the Party seemed to want to hear right now.
Of the two finalists, Boris Johnson is the one I know best. I was in fact his first official policy adviser, as I covered the DCMS brief in the Conservative Research Department when he was appointed Shadow Arts Minister in 2004. I worked for him again when he was Shadow Minister for Higher Education and I was the Education Special Adviser. Our paths crossed occasionally whilst he was Mayor of London, and our relationship has remained friendly. He has shown genuine kindness towards me, and I like him. More than that, I believe from what I know of him that he is an instinctive social liberal and at heart a One-Nation Conservative. He is certainly not the caricature either he or his opponents sometimes portray, though it must be said he doesn't do himself any favours with ill-advised and indefensible remarks for which he is predictably (and often reasonably) attacked.
Jeremy Hunt I know less well personally, but I have been impressed by his performance during the campaign. He has shown more energy and humour than many would have expected, and I applauded his serious responses on a number of issues, particularly President Trump's attack on the British Ambassador and on ruling out prorogation of Parliament as a tactic to secure Brexit. I believe he is a serious and credible figure who would be a competent Prime Minister, although the argument that he simply represents a continuation of Theresa May's unsuccessful approach to getting a deal does weigh against him.
On Brexit, there is in truth not much to choose between the two candidates' stated positions - both say they will renegotiate the withdrawal agreement but are prepared to leave with no deal if they cannot. Both these propositions are fraught with difficulty, to say the least, and all of the structural and political problems that thwarted Theresa May will apply just as much to her successor. Which of them is more likely to succeed? Boris is more likely to convince the EU he's serious about No-Deal and to then win over the hardliners of the ERG to accept a compromise, whilst Jeremy Hunt is more likely to have the goodwill to negotiate a finely-balanced solution to the border and to win over Labour MPs to get it through parliament. But neither would find it easy.
There is a case to be made that a Boris Johnson premiership is simply the logical outcome of the EU referendum in 2016. Having won it as the most prominent public face of Vote Leave, he should now take responsibility for delivering on the promises made, or take the blame for failing to do so. Politically, too, there is a need for the Conservative Party to sort this mess out, and get Brexit done. We have tried three years of patient, relentlessly sensible negotiation with a dutiful, unshowy leader, and it hasn't worked. Arguably, it is time to shake things up. Perhaps the Conservative Party, through its intransigence and increasingly dogmatic obsession, has contrived to devise the only equation to which the answer is Boris Johnson in Number 10.
That was the case that came closest to convincing me, and I still believe it may turn out to hold some truth. Certainly, I don't fear a Johnson premiership in anything like the way I shudder at the idea of a Corbyn one. It might be muddled and at times chaotic, but we'd cope. It could even surprise people, if Boris applies his considerable energy and intellect to championing progressive policy solutions that revitalise modern Conservatism. With his ability to command attention and convey a sense of optimism, that could be a formidable combination.
|Boris on a visit to Eltham in 2010|
But ultimately, I couldn't accept this argument as enough. Theresa May was unsuccessful in selling her deal, but I believe she was basically right, and those who opposed her were wrong. The argument "We tried being reasonable, now let's try being unreasonable" is a difficult one for any pragmatic Conservative to swallow. The refusal of the Johnson campaign to rule out proroguing parliament, and the "Do or die" rhetoric make me profoundly uneasy. Perhaps it will get it done, but if not, we could be heading for a damaging no-deal or a disastrous general election.
My assessment is that Jeremy Hunt stands more chance of getting some kind of modified deal through parliament. There may not be as much drama as with Boris, but I think he could finish the job Theresa May started, and we can move on. There are also those national polls suggesting he has potentially greater appeal to the wider electorate, who we urgently need to win back to the cause of modern Conservatism.
So, all things considered, my own judgement aligned with the responses to my local survey. Yes, Boris is still overwhelmingly likely to win - and the personally and politically smart thing for me to do would have been to find a way to declare for him. I'm genuinely sad that I couldn't. It remained a finely-balanced judgement, and I have the utmost respect for friends and colleagues who sincerely came to a different conclusion. But after pacing for some time around Woolwich Town Hall - a place in which I am well used to being in the minority- I resolved to have the courage of my convictions. I cast my vote for Jeremy Hunt.
|An obligatory serious pose for a serious decision.|