Yesterday we received word that Boris Johnson was going to be the new Conservative Party leader. By extension, he is also going to become our new Prime Minister. There will be no general election. This means a tiny minority of the country (c. 90,000 people all told) have just elected our new Prime Minister.
It is obviously entirely legitimate for the Conservative Party membership to elect their own leader. And the reality of the British electoral system is that few of us ever vote for our Prime Minister either. The only people who ever vote for the PM are those party members electing their leader and, subsequently, those people who live in the PM’s constituency and vote them into power. They remain Prime Minister for as long as they command the confidence of the house. If they have already been elected, then they may walk into the top job in the country being, as they are, already elected by their constituents and being similarly supported by the majority members of their party on the ground that the party membership just voted for them to lead their party.
We don’t run a presidential system here and, for good or ill, this is one of the quirks of our parliamentary system. It is entirely possible for somebody to lead the country based on 90,000 votes from those who have paid their dues to belong to a political party and a further 22,000 votes from those in their constituency eligible to vote in a general election. Some might consider that a tragic indictment of a broken political system; others may see it as the reality of the parliamentary system that has other democratic benefits. I shall leave you to decide into which this particular quirk falls.
But my purpose isn’t to talk about our parliamentary democracy and FPTP voting system. My purpose is much simpler. I want to point to one specific quirk that isn’t really a voting issue at all.
You see, Boris Johnson isn’t married. ‘Who cares?’, you cry. It’s nothing new, Ted Heath wasn’t married either. That’s right he wasn’t. What about Ed Miliband? He wasn’t PM but he was a party leader and not married either. This could have been him. But there is a little difference. Ted Heath, to my knowledge, was not a serial adulterer. Ed Miliband, whilst cohabiting, did eventually get married and was clearly in a long-term stable relationship nonetheless. Boris Johnson, by contrast, has had multiple affairs and is currently in a short-term relationship with a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Now, you may not be overly bothered about that. Who are we to judge, and all that. What’s that got to do with his ability to lead a party? Isn’t his private life exactly that? And, on certain views and understandings of the interplay between politics and personal life, I’d say there is a consistent position that could hold just that. His private life has nothing to do with his public office. So, if that’s your view, that is an argument you can make if you want.
But there are Christians in particular who were the ones to insist that character really matters. Evangelicals – at least, a particular brand of evangelical – have wanted to argue that character matters. Many of those same evangelicals have wanted to argue that the Conservative Party and their conservative values are the ones who best exemplify such character. Conservativism, they argue, is the Christian choice. John Major was having his own affair but all that came out later so we weren’t to know. Tellingly, it was all covered up too, suggesting that this strain of thought most certainly pervaded the thinking of many a Tory voter.
But now, those Christians who insisted character matters and that the Conservative Party are the Christian choice are now faced with a libertarian leading the party. A man who loves the classical Greeks because they endorse his libertarian tendencies. A man who openly commits adultery, again and again, and intends to take his cohabiting, relatively short-term partner into No. 10 with him. A man who has consistently been shown to have a poor work ethic. A man who frequently, and openly, tells lies. If character matters, what are we going to say of the new Prime Minister?
It is, incidentally, the same issue that worked for Donald Trump in the US. People never tire of pointing out that Evangelicals voted for Trump. Whilst there may be some dispute over just how many did and whether they were real Evangelicals or not, there is no doubt that some definitely did. In fact, good Evangelical leaders – who once argued firmly that character matters – suddenly threw that out the window the moment the Republican leader proved to have abysmal character.
Even if the Conservative Party was once socially conservative, it is clear that the 90,000 people who voted for Boris clearly aren’t all that socially conservative either. If you are a social conservative, and you wish to vote on those principles at the next election, you are going to have to do that elsewhere. The Conservative Party have not been socially conservative for some time. Clearly the majority of the party membership agree. But now, they have thrown off any such pretense and elected a man who has no intention of maintaining the charade either.
As a Democratic Socialist, you might think this has nothing to do with me. But I am a Democratic Socialist with a high sympathy for social conservatism. Time once was that under a Labour government there would be much for me to applaud with inevitable bits I didn’t like. By contrast, should a Conservative government form, whilst there would be much I didn’t like, there would always be some bits that I did. But as both parties have moved away from their traditional bases and have positioned themselves as centrist liberals – socially progressive and economically liberal – one suddenly finds fewer bits one ever did like and the good bits that did exist shrinking ever further. As both parties moved closer to being replicas of one another – to the point that people could jump out of both parties to form a new party that died a death and then happily jump into the Liberal Democrats as though nothing has changed – underlines the point still further.
There are two gaps in the political market. There is a socially conservative gap and there is a Socialist gap. A party that held to social democratic (or, democratic socialist) principles whilst maintaining a degree of social conservatism would do well in appealing to the working classes. For the Christian – wherever you sit on the political spectrum – the traditional arguments for voting Conservative are losing their power and any Christian grounds for doing so – recognising that I never found them particularly strong or credible – seem as shaky as they have ever been.