Conservative leadership hopefuls reveal Modern Life is Rubbish - Brian Monteith

For all our technological progress, are we really advancing towards a more open, accountable and democratic society? It’s a big question that most of us have little time to ponder, yet it is worth asking nevertheless, for the Conservative Party leadership election is providing another example of how, as the Blur album famously suggested “modern life is rubbish”.
Penny Mordaunt, arrives at the BBC to appear on the BBC's 'Sunday Morning' political television showPenny Mordaunt, arrives at the BBC to appear on the BBC's 'Sunday Morning' political television show
Penny Mordaunt, arrives at the BBC to appear on the BBC's 'Sunday Morning' political television show

The Conservative or Labour Party leadership election processes are ostensibly more democratic than what happened in the past, but is the outcome? I was only in Primary one at Parsons Green Primary when the seriously ill Harold Macmillan announced he would resign and to the astonishment of most, Her Majesty the Queen invited the Foreign Secretary, Scotland’s Fourteenth Earl of Home, to attempt to form a government. This came as a great shock to the media which had been salivating over the prospects of Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler or Reginald Maudling replacing Macmillan still in his hospital bed.

There was then, as now, a great deal of skulduggery and manipulation in Westminster around those events – but this is the stock-in-trade of politics and pertained in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome and has continued through the ages to Biden’s White House, Putin’s Kremlin and Sturgeon’s Holyrood annexe.

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It all happened during the Conservative Party conference of 1963 – providing ample opportunity for politicians and members to give their tuppence-worth with the favoured candidates making disappointing speeches or in Hailsham’s case revealing behaviour thought vulgar at the time. There were no votes, however, just “soundings” with Macmillan reporting to the Queen that his recommendation was Home, who in accepting then proceeded to renounce his peerage and contest successfully the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election to once again take a seat in the Commons. There was only a year left for Parliament to run and Home lost the 1964 general election, albeit narrowly, 13 seats behind Labour’s Harold Wilson.

The Conservatives allowed MPs to choose the leader and ultimately to giving party members the final say after their negative reaction to MPs removing Margaret Thatcher without their consent. Likewise, Labour has reduced the power of trades unions to a weighted formula involving MPs, party members and union members – although MPs sponsored by unions are obviously conflicted.

So now in modern Britain the process of choosing party leaders has “progressed”. We have the main political parties seeking the endorsement of their wider memberships, with the Queen’s prerogative significantly weakened – yet does it give us better leaders? Has it stopped us having frauds and chancers, has it made our leaders any more honest due to the supposed greater accountability?

I am not suggesting we go back to decisions spilling out of aristocratic Mayfair club rooms or a show of hands at mass meetings of the working classes – it is more I suspect we have gone to another extreme, the immediacy and vacuity of social media suggesting how we should feel about a candidate based upon how they emote on issues tested by pollsters and discussed by focus groups.

The rise of Tory leadership hopeful Penny Mordaunt is one such example, while Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch take a different route.

Mordaunt had gained a following quickly due to the early circulation of video clips showing her roasting the SNP in the Commons. Then came tub-thumping patriotic memes using a confection of Mordaunt in her Naval Reserve uniform, the Union flag and selected quotes that encouraged one to hear “I vow to thee my country” being sung in the background. One could imagine her Catherine Deneuve coiffure swirling as she conducts Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance at last night of the Proms. No surprise then to find her rushing ahead in polling of members and MPs believing they had better get in an orderly queue behind her.

It was all ephemeral nonsense. Scratch away the thin veneer, delve into her co-authored book “Greater” and view other speeches about what she actually believes and suddenly her modern campaign is rubbish.

Thus the penny dropped and Kemi Badenoch has overtaken her in current Tory members’ polling.

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It has not been social media itself that has provided the necessary corrective but old-tech speeches, testimonies and articles by former colleagues, co-workers and commentators who have then used social media like a boomerang to cut through Mordaunt’s façade.

Badenoch, meantime has risen effortlessly by telling everyone she wants to restore truth to politics – not just as an obvious riposte to a Janus-like older generation of Premiers ranging from Blair through to Johnson – but as a force to be used against Starmer and Sturgeon too.

A woman of colour like Badenoch – who intentionally chose the UK as the best place to be free to prosper and raise a family – would put the excluding Scottish exceptionalism of Sturgeon into a tailspin – if she’s still around at the next election.

Truss, by comparison, is slowly but surely garnering MPs votes by differentiating herself from the Treasury’s continuity globalist candidate, Rishi Sunak, and extoling herself as the new champion of Brexit. Both Badenoch and Truss know whoever gets to the run-off is likely to have the best chance of taking Tory politics to a claimed Thatcherite nirvana where Back to the Future becomes Forward to the Past – after all, for conservatives, if not the majority of us, Modern Life is Rubbish.

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of



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