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The Morbid Conservative Leadership Battle Shows Us the Party Is Dying

David Davis is what happens when you've run out of options.
(Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images)

David Davis wants to rule your life. His Tory leadership prospects are currently being talked up in newspaper editorials, and it feels as inevitable as the synchronised four-syllable thud of his name, a clumping double-trochee that promises a world where everything always sounds the same but nothing ever rhymes. MPs are manoeuvring for him; Conservative party members prefer him (even if, as always, the real first place goes always to the void). And he might get exactly what he wants.


Theresa May is finished. The finely engineered Rube Goldberg machine of internal Tory politics is already in motion: postures and half-truths seeping up from the backbenches, careful decisions being made by strange and leathery people over wine you can't afford. She says she'll stick around for years to come; the party's aristocracy are meanwhile begging a ravenous, matrivorous parliamentary horde to let her see out the summer. Before too long, she'll get the signal – a note handwritten in blood and delivered to number 10, a series of coded twitches or occult handshakes in the Cabinet rooms, a crow fluttering awkwardly to her windowsill, whatever means they choose – and that'll be it. The nocturnal march of Conservative power will continue, its deep and arcane traditions intact. And all of this grand conspiracy will do nothing more than put a meaty greyed-out non-entity like David Davis in office.

He's not meant to be a non-entity; the chief charm of the current Brexit secretary is meant to be that he actually has some charm. He was in the SAS reserves; he grew up in a council flat and pulled himself up by the bootstraps through the London Business School and an executive position at a sugar manufacturer to the corridors of power; he has some stories, he has some grit. He is, as political journalists never tire of telling us, "the only man who can swagger sitting down." It's a nice line. It's also manufactured. The only man who could swagger sitting down was actually Sugar Ray Robinson, as described by Life magazine in 1950. Only in a world as petty and degraded as that of British politics could people with a straight face take a phrase invented for the greatest boxer of all time and give it to a hunk of gristle like David Davis.



Of course, David Davis isn't the worst creature prowling the famished earth. He voted against raising student fees, he wants Tony Blair to face justice for misleading Parliament and the public over the Iraq war, he supports assisted suicide, and he has a strong record as an outspoken advocate for civil liberties. He fought the excesses of an increasingly authoritarian New Labour last decade and still opposing the frantic Tory plans to ban online encryption, which would throw about everyone's personal data into the vast open piranha-tank of the internet, all in the vague hopes that it might mildly inconvenience a few terrorists.

All this comes, naturally, at a cost. David Davis is a fierce opponent of gay marriage; he didn't have any ethical concerns over the bedroom tax or the public sector pay cap or the abolition of EMAs. His more popular positions – and his more abhorrent ones – are just minor variations on the usual programme, homophobic window-dressing for the neoliberal consensus. He is, in the end, just another awful tedious Tory.

What his inevitable candidacy represents is the utter exhaustion of the Conservative party, its dead-end desperation, its inability to come up with anything new. This is a familiar role for him: he represented the exact same thing back in 2005, when he fought a Tory leadership campaign against a bright young upstart called David Cameron. Davis had been in Parliament since 1987; he stood for the vampiric and undying Tory old guard against Cameron's hoodie-hugging queer-friendly right-wing modernity. That liberal-Tory future was battered by six years of wars, repressions, and cuts; it finally faded away with Brexit and Mayism. After all, the Brexit result was widely interpreted as a vote against the passage of time – but as May found out, it wasn't an endorsement of her own brand of rabidly realist misery. What's left when all other options have extinguished themselves? What's left is the base-level Tory muck. What's left is David Davis.


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But he has company down there. After this year's election, the immediate consensus was that May would have to go, but there's simply nobody good enough to replace her. The presumptive frontrunners tend to be described as the party's "big beasts", which is accurate in a sense: they're lumbering, pea-brained, cold-blooded, and spectacularly non-human; megafauna swaying towards extinction.

There's comedy mumbling ape Boris Johnson, whose prospects for power have been hamstrung by the fact that, last time round, he was out-manoeuvred by a gurning mendacious little gnome like Michael Gove. There's Michael Gove, who is similarly held up by being that gurning mendacious little gnome. There's Amber Rudd, inheritor of the Home Office acediocracy, a vague flesh-coloured spiral of poshness and catastrophically inept authoritarianism. There's Philip Hammond, a crawling Cameronite bean-counter who mostly takes the all-essential "scientician" role in the May government. There's Priti Patel. There is, in the final tortured twist into self-parody, Jacob Rees-Mogg. It's a cast of nobodies.

In the mythological traditions of the ancient Near East, the primordial creator gods – the spirits of the water and the air, living in a world before sunshine – first created out of themselves the gods that would go on to rule humanity. But as the aeons passed, they grew tired, they degenerated, and they gave birth to monsters; the brutish misshapen things of an overfull and wallowing world. Things without qualities, things without any good purpose. There's a kind of shudder that comes out of the prospect of a country led by David Davis or Michael Gove or any of these people; it's the same sense of unease that I get when watching Theresa May pottering around Downing Street as if nothing has changed. It's the horror of the monstrous, of a politics that's already dead, but still keeps creaking its rotted bones. Whoever the next Tory Prime Minister is, they'll take their first speech from within the grave.