11 July 2019, The Tablet

A play for today: our theatre critic on the drama of the Tory leadership election

A play for today: our theatre critic on the drama of the Tory leadership election

Like Caesar’s ghost taunting Brutus about his imminent defeat in this engraving inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brexit will forever haunt whoever ends up in 10 Downing Street
Engraving (1802) by Edward Scriven from a painting by Richard Westall


We might imagine that the election for the leadership of the Conservative Party – and for the premiership – is a dramatic two-hander that will end with a neat resolution. It is more likely to prove to be just be an opening scene

Anyone now seeking a high political position is rapidly required by backers to define their personal “narrative” and identify potential questions over “character”.

These borrowings from the vocabulary of drama are not accidental. Politics is inherently theatrical: an election a conversation between two main players, the poll a denouement. And voters, like those watching a play, will usually identify a protagonist – the candidate they want to prevail – and an antagonist: the one they don’t. So the reason that the contest for the Conservative Party leadership between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson (I am ranking the men alphabetically, rather than by widely presumed result) has so often felt like a badly written and crassly staged play is that it is an unusual genre of political drama, ignoring the general conventions of both theatre and democracy.

The strangest aspect is that most of the audience has no direct involvement with the outcome. The premiership will be awarded by the around 160,000 Conservative Party members who have a vote in the process; an echo of the tiny elite franchise of the earliest British parliamentary elections from 1801. In one sense, such collective disenfranchisement has become fashionable. In a statistic on which we should possibly reflect more often, during the 12 years since Tony Blair’s resignation in 2007, the UK has had only for 13 months a prime minister who took office by winning a general election majority, rather than via deals with a minority party (Liberal Democrats/DUP) or internal party selection.

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