It was when Matt Hancock went over to Boris Johnson that something snapped. ‘Every time a child says “I don’t believe in fairies,”’ said Peter Pan, ‘there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.’ When Matt Hancock said this week that he did believe in Boris Johnson, something in me died.
I remember Matt practising with a few of us for his speech to Conservative candidate selection meetings. He needed more work on the fluency — he still does — but was outstandingly bright, quick, endearingly ambitious, full of bounce and, most important, he seemed to me a good person. Of course all of us are a mixture of good and bad, but I do believe some people get pulled into bad orbits while others resist, and I thought Matt would be the kind to resist. I’ve never discussed Mr Johnson with him but would hardly have thought that necessary, knowing (as I thought) Matt’s beliefs.
Not so fast, as it turns out. Matt’s gone over. Scores have: people I want to admire.
In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder describes one of his characters receiving from somebody close an unpleasant letter which ‘wrapped in forgiveness and understanding… sank into her heart’. And so it is with me, as, one after another, people in politics I was friendly with, people I can’t name because our conversations were private, but who have been more vehement even than me in their judgment of this sordid opportunist, swap sides to Mr Johnson. And I do understand, sort of. I realise I have no constituency association to fend off, no parliamentary seat to nurse, no salary to protect, no political ambitions left to pursue. Easy, for me. I know the arguments, too; we all do; ‘Stay in the game’, ‘Keep at the centre of thing’, ‘Be at the top table when he goes’, ‘Pick your moment but pick it carefully: today isn’t the moment’, ‘Wait until tomorrow, when he fails…’
Tomorrow, always tomorrow. And today you make your accommodations, and slowly you forget where you’d been headed, forget who you were; the game becomes everything; and you begin to enjoy the winks and tapped noses; and you’ve gone over to the dark side, and it’s too late.
I thought I knew all that. No political commentator — particularly one who was for seven years himself a backbench Tory MP — likes to be thought unworldly, and I’ve prided myself on being as cynical as the next guy. But, having never lost my own opinions about what has seemed to me the public good, I’ve tried to run a line in dispassionate commentary alongside some strong personal views, openly expressed, on the issues themselves. One tries to keep believing in individuals in our politics — to locate the good (or better) men and women and support them, distinguishing them from the bad (or worse) people — according to one’s own compass.
And no, that’s not as simple as designating (in the case of Brexit) all Remainers as good and all Leavers as bad. Perhaps in some cases wrongly, I have thought of Dominic Raab, Steve Baker, Stuart Wheeler, the Dominics Cummings and Lawson, Andrew Neil, Andrea Leadsom, Charles Moore, Simon Heffer, even my old friend Bernard Jenkin whom Brexit has turned positively loopy, as moral men and women: human beings of whom one would be confident there are things they would not do, people with whom they would not throw in their lot. Douglas Carswell is (for me) in the same category. And I well know that in my own Remain camp are to be found fair-weather friends ready to switch tack when the wind changes. Politics has and perhaps needs its Jeremy Hunts: wind-socks in the political breeze.
It’s just that there are limits, and I thought we knew them: things you would not do, causes you would not join, people you would not praise in hope of preferment or fear of whips’ blackmail. And if you had asked me a year ago to suggest a test for these limits in contemporary British politics, I would have proposed Mr Johnson, that bridge too far. Indeed I did. On many occasions I’ve assured worried friends that there was no way his colleagues would send him forth to be blessed by the national Tory membership on his way to Downing Street. They knew him too well.
They still do. There’s no need for further evidence about this man. And the fact there’s no need is the reason for the most profound despair. The case is proved already, his allies privately concede it without demur, and more proof is redundant. Colleagues know he’s no good, know he’s a cold-eyed scoundrel. They require no persuading of his inappropriateness to lead a nation through difficult times. Reel off the list of his incapacities and they yawn because they agree, and their opinion of the man hasn’t changed in years. What has changed is their opinion of his future usefulness to their own careers. One always knew there existed such eels in our House of Commons; but what I never knew was that they amount to half the membership of the parliamentary Conservative party. More fool me — and I do mean that.
All my adult life I’ve wondered how administrations with the normal quotient of intelligent men and women slither towards disaster: stumbling towards a project’s ruin — with hardly a peep raised in protest. And all my adult life I’ve been irritated by how the most profound questions may be best answered by the most banal of English adages. It’s simple. Mr Johnson’s colleagues are going over to him because they see which side their bread is buttered on. But is there nobody to see further, and risk — perhaps forsake — his own career by warning us?
Could that be Rory Stewart? And even as I write this I realise he will probably have been eliminated from the contest before you read it. There I go again, believing in somebody. Really must kick the habit.