Tim Montgomerie: Lessons for ideology-free Johnson – and the Conservatives – in ideology-free Merkel’s legacy

29 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘He is the most remarkable politician of our age’. ‘The most formidable of election winners’. ‘His recipe of extra showbiz and a small side of policy fits our celebrity age perfectly’.

‘The economy’s iron lady’ of 40 years ago might famously have been against turning, but Boris Johnson prefers to see himself as the voters’ ‘flexible friend’. Oozing self-confidence, he does not feel restrained by the rules that Margaret Thatcher laid down, and which inhibit ‘principled, conviction politicians’ who – bless them – see ideas and policies as defining their mission.

And, electorally, he is fundamentally right that turning towards target voters is rarely a bad thing in this age of consumerist-programmed minds. Brits, increasingly used to getting precisely what they want from their shopping platforms; or in their entertainment, travel and leisure options; and even, perhaps especially, in their bedroom activities, like this servant leadership/ political pragmatism/ naked opportunism. (You can choose what to call it!).

Average voters are certainly more keen than the many newspapers and pundits who sell themselves as partly ideological, truth-telling products.

If, therefore, you are a politician who tends to be shamelessly, relentlessly obsessed about retaining power, then shuffle, shift, switch and even somersault your (dizzying) journey through elected office.

And all that s-bending is especially plausible for politicians who, happy days, via one big issue (like Brexit) already possess a loyal core of voters, and can consequently enjoy greater licence on almost everything else (as long as that litmus first big impression stays intact).

Four decades after the Iron Lady, our Flexible Friend in Number 10 isn’t relaxed about how he shifts his shape, however. This Downing Street’s u-turnery is almost scientific in its precision.

Directed by a government polling operation that is so gargantuan, pricey and relentless that it would make Blair and Clinton blush, ‘The Boris Offer’ is sold as ever-fresh and usually one step ahead or, at worst, barely one step behind opposition parties, and their ever more uphill search for issues that will give them an advantage over the Government.

So, in short, the Boris approach is an electorally effective one but – of course there is a but. The shape-shifting eventually becomes all that there is. The ruling party and government loses its principles and character. Incoherence can follow. Commitment from allies weakens. It stops attracting candidates and thinkers who aspire to be more than door-to-door salesmen. Policy innovation dries up as donors give up on think tanks who are unable to devise policies that can readily survive a run of bad focus groups or negative newspaper splashes.

The thinner set of policies that do succeed in getting to drafting stage in government don’t benefit from the Rolls Royce-style lab and road-testing that (allegedly) the civil service once lavished on them. And who can blame a seasoned Sir Humphry, government backbencher or even expert outside volunteer for judging that any time they give to the nurture of ambitious projects will very likely be wasted. Because ambitious almost always means risky, and risky – in any government that fears short-term unpopularity – equals project termination.

Angela Merkel, and last Sunday’s collapse in her party’s vote, is something of a cautionary tale for the British Conservative Party in these early years of “flexibility”.

Mutti’s innate caution might have been the main driver of the German experience – rather than the same BorisInc desire to turn politics into a branch of market research – but the basic inoffensiveness of pitch, and therefore the consequent lack of big mission, are shared features.

Political popularity appears to be broad and sustained but, when it eventually is exhausted, the falling away of support is dramatic. No one is loyal to you because you weren’t ever loyal to much that – at core – they really cared about. The popularity may be of long duration for ‘flexipols’ like Johnson and Merkel, but the list of big achievements ends up being pretty short. Big geopolitical problems like the rise of authoritarian China or dependence on energy from a gangster state like Russia only tend to grow even bigger.

During Merkel’s 16 years, Germany’s Christian Democrats ceased to be adequately distinguishable from the leftish Social Democrats. But it’s not too late for the Conservative Party to fight to stay robustly Conservative.

On tax, free markets, support for the family, basic civil liberties, the essential equality of the four Union nations, and in the fundamental character of our foreign and defence policies, the early sense of drift is real. The electoral operation and philosophy behind Johnson are formidable, but they should serve our mission and not, bit by bit, supplant it.

Those rightist scribblers in newspapers and online who have recently – and in chorus –  written obituaries for conservatism and/or Thatcherism are premature. The warning signs are real though. And the fightback must become real too.

Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.