Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and former expert advisor on the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism.
“Coca Cola never stops advertising; nor should we.” This summation of the challenge for the Conservative Party in the era of Boris Johnson comes from James Cleverly. He is right.
Once the current Johnson honeymoon dissipates, the Conservatives will have to face up to the underlying challenges their party faces: an ageing and dwindling party membership, a pool of potential voters increasingly susceptible to the appeal of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, a perception in the country that they are out of touch with modern Britain and the millennial generation, and a lack of fluency with social media and online campaigning. Or as I call it: campaigning. These issues threaten the future of the party.
The Party Chair must be able to deal with all of them. Cleverly is well suited to tick each of these boxes.
Like most Britons beyond the party membership, he sees ‘diversity’ not as a political box to be ticked, but as friends and family. How many other current candidates could talk to an audience fearful and indignant about the prospect of being stopped and searched about the time in his late teens when they were stopped and searched themselves? How many other candidates can say they understand what it is like to grow up in Britain as the son of a mixed-race couple?
Cleverly is a peacemaker within the party. He’s a Brexiteer who nonetheless defended Dominic Grieve after he lost a vote of no confidence in his constituency, on the eminently reasonable rationale that a party should always be home to a wide range of views.
He understands ordinary people. His mum worked as a midwife and his dad built a successful small business. Views of the Tory party are surprisingly sensitive to the privilege associated with its leader. Nobody can tell a man who started his own business he has not worked hard. Cleverly can undercut perceptions of the party as being just for the rich and those born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
He has also been an officer in the Territorial Army for the last 20 years. In 2004, he was called up to make sure that mobilised TA soldiers got their jobs back when they came home from Iraq. He understands the extent to which duty and patriotism are woven into the fabric of our forces and everything they do.
He also has experience with public services. In 2012, Boris appointed him chairman of the London Fire Authority in which he worked with senior officers to reform the fire brigade, saving money and improving performance in the process.
The truth is, though, that none of this matters unless he is able to demonstrate the political skills necessary for the job. Anyone without them will fast be found out.
One early test is Islamophobia. I will be blunt: the Conservative Party needs to be much more proactive in dealing with Islamophobia. When my Muslim friends ask me whether the Tory party is serious about recognising and stamping out Islamophobia within its ranks, I wish I could give them a detailed plan on what exactly the party intends to do.
Sajid Javid has already done a good job getting the topic onto the agenda within the party. Thanks to him, each leadership candidate in the most recent contest committed to commissioning an independent investigation into Islamophobia. Cleverly has a good record on this. He was part of the team at Conservative Central Office which made sure that a local candidate who tweeted Islamophobic sentiments was swiftly dealt with.
He also has a good track record when it comes to engaging on the issues around identity politics, which are so important to so many young people. Any Tory MP could respond to these issues by saying they don’t think identity politics is the way forward. But mounting a counterattack which appeals to head and heart takes skill, guts, and empathy. When Dawn Butler said Jamie Oliver’s jerk chicken recipe smacked of cultural appropriation, how many other Tory MPs would have been able to explain as articulately why borrowing the best food, music, and art from other cultures is not just enjoyable, it is British?
He is authentic, gives straight questions the straight answers they deserve, knows how to admit mistakes and move on elegantly when necessary, and get things done. James Cleverly remains the Conservative Party Chair the party needs.