Middle age comes to all of us but it announces its arrival in different ways.
Some start to notice police constables getting younger. Others record the diminishing change from a fiver when buying a pint.
For me, it is the discovery that I’m more square than Michael Gove. The environment secretary has admitted to doing cocaine. It’s like finding out Princess Anne ghost-wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Surrey Heath MP joined others vying to replace Theresa May in admitting past drug use, including Rory Stewart (opium at a wedding in Iran), Jeremy Hunt (bhang lassi while backpacking in India) and Andrea Leadsom (cannabis at university). Setting the Tory leadership race inside an episode of Breaking Bad is Netflix’s most audacious crossover yet.
Although evidently not as chemically adventurous as half the Tory frontbench, I am a libertarian on these matters. The humorist PJ O’Rourke said of the United States, and it applies to Britain too: ‘A nation that consumes as much booze and dope as we do and has our kind of divorce statistics should pipe down about “character issues”’.
However, I am fantastically unrepresentative of the blue-rinse matrons who form the backbone of the voluntary Conservative Party. These are ladies whose idea of a dark past of substance abuse involves ordering a second sherry at the Women’s Institute annual lunch.
While liberal commentators gush about the ‘bravery’ of narcotic confessions, many Conservative party members — the electorate for the second round of the leadership ballot — will be unimpressed by all this loose and consequence-free talk of illegal drug use.
They back prohibition and worry about the influence on young people when so many prominent politicians speak openly about dabbling in controlled substances. I would have thought the risk of becoming a Tory MP was deterrent enough.
The danger for the candidates is that the contest does indeed become about ‘character issues’. The success of the Brexit Party in the European parliament elections heralds a new threat on the Tories’ Right flank. Older, socially conservative voters have somewhere else to go now, even if Nigel Farage is hardly in the running for sainthood.
A debate about what the Americans call ‘values’ — a relative, liberal concept; true conservatives are interested in virtues — would be especially bad news for Boris Johnson. His rivals would dig up his flaws, personal and political, for newspaper fodder and to remind the Tory faithful that he is far from their conventional notion of a prime minister.
It may well be that such things are ‘priced in’, in the way that no revelation about Donald Trump could dissuade his supporters. They knew he was vulgar. They knew he was boorish. But they had had enough of politely-spoken politicians who failed to listen to them. Voting for the vulgar boor was the only way to shake things up.
There is a chance of a similar transactional arrangement with Johnson. He has promised to withdraw from the European Union on October 31st, whether a deal can be agreed or not, and for those frustrated by Parliament’s refusal to uphold the outcome of the 2016 referendum, the stark simplicity is what they want to hear. No more dithering: better off out.
To be able to propose that arrangement to Tories across the country, Johnson still has to get past MPs who know him well. Too well. They know Boris the Blunderer, Boris the Double-Crosser, and are torn between their need for a star and his high potential for bringing it all crashing down around him.
Johnson is keeping out of the spotlight but the longer he resists the bait dangled by his opponents, the more desperate they will grow. If there are fresh scandals to come, some reason, better that they come out now than when he’s in Number 10.
For this and other reasons, Johnson is a non-starter for many Tories.
Ruth Davidson is backing Sajid Javid, the Scottish Tory leader handing down her coveted endorsement in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday. Replacing Theresa May with another Remainer Home Secretary who says No Deal is better than a bad deal is certainly courageous. Davidson is an up-by-your-bootstraps Tory who wants the party to look more like blue-collar Britain.
She credits Javid, son of a Pakistan-born bus driver, with ‘work[ing] his way to a better life for himself and his family before walking away from a lucrative career in order to give back in public service to the country he loves and which offered his immigrant parents a home’.
Javid would be the country’s first Asian prime minister and his arrival in Downing Street would send a powerful message that race is no barrier to success in Britain. He is also a longstanding supporter of the Jewish community and could be expected to step up the fight against the despicable Jeremy Corbyn.
Javid’s other marquee selling point is his firm unionism, which he has already vouched for with the clear, if inelegant, statement: ‘If I become PM, I won’t allow a second Scottish independence referendum’.
The test of Javid, as of Johnson and the others, will come in the televised hustings. Three audiences will have to be addressed. MPs will be watching to see which candidates they can trust to put through to a members’ ballot. Members want to hear who has the swiftest and clearest plan for Brexit, and thereafter for reviving the electoral fortunes of a party that has commanded a majority of seats in the House of Commons for just two of the past 22 years.
Beyond these electors, lies the electorate. They don’t get a vote but the winner will become their prime minister. They are after answers on Brexit but confirmation too that the Tories have fresh ideas on the economy, public services and the cost of living. Theresa May spent three years managing her party instead of running the country. Her successor cannot afford to repeat her mistakes.
The Conservatives are currently polling at 18 per cent. Toryism is at grave risk of becoming a fringe position as upwardly-mobile voters desert them for the Lib Dems and right-wingers are lured away by the Brexit Party. The current contest is a leadership election but it is also a struggle for the very survival of the Tory Party.
If MPs and members act precipitously, if they elect a leader who makes them feel good, rather than one who makes the country feel secure, they risk casting their party into electoral oblivion. The immediate consequence of that would be the election of an anti-Semite and terrorism-apologist as prime minister.
The longer-term fall-out would be fatal to the prosperity and reputation of the United Kingdom. One of the world’s most stable nations would be handed over to warring rabbles of populist sloganeers, with all the predictable implications for our economy and security. It would represent exactly the sort of upheaval and disunity the Tory Party was created to prevent.
We have heard a lot in this leadership contest about Brexit and we have heard a lot, rather more than we’d care to, about the pharmaceutical recreations of MPs and Cabinet ministers. What we have not heard nearly enough about is the most Tory virtue of all: duty.
The Tory Party has a duty to deliver on the outcome of the 2016 referendum. It has a duty to restore order to our governance and never let the political system come to such a sorry pass again.
Most imperative of all is the duty to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn does not get anywhere near power. The Conservative Party exists to promote trade, uphold liberty under the law and stand as a bulwark against socialism. There is one further, unwritten commission: that this country never be allowed to fall into the hands of its enemies.
In selecting a new leader, Tories must be guided by the demands of this momentous task.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image: Policy Exchange (cc/2.0). Dominic Raab image: Policy Exchange (cc/2.0). Boris Johnson image: Foreign Office (cc/2.0).