If Boris Johnson can’t stomach young, anti no-deal Tories like me, he won’t get far with the rest of the electorate

I asked the soon-to-be prime minister how he’d attract young people to a party that’s only offering catastrophe for their futures, and the answer was even more disappointing than I expected

Ed Shackle
Monday 22 July 2019 10:58 BST
Boris Johnson in profile

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a “Back Boris” rally in Kent. I wasn’t there out of loyalty, to network, or even to hold Boris Johnson to account. What I was looking for was a sense of reassurance that my party, and my country, were in safe hands. I didn’t find it.

As a young Conservative, I am increasingly troubled by the direction my party is heading. Its descent into far-right euroscepticism, entirely divorced from concerns of evidence or fact, is a far cry from the moderate party representing sensible fiscal policy that I’ve been involved with since my first year at university. Its identity shift seems to be partly a wrongheaded attempt to beat Nigel Farage and his ex-Ukip-turned-Brexit-Party-base at their own game. The problem is, it isn’t working.

Farage will always be better at being Nigel Farage than the Conservative Party will. Our desperate attempts to imitate him are pushing away young voters and members – like myself – who see their futures threatened by the prospect of Brexit. Along with many other young Conservative members, I voted for the Liberal Democrats in the EU elections. Unless my party elects a leader who drastically changes course, I will do so again in a general election.

It was with this in mind that I spent that Thursday afternoon at the Back Boris rally in Dover. I didn’t know what to expect – but my hopes weren’t especially high. Last week, a young Conservative I know from Northern Ireland asked Johnson an important question about combating the Tory membership’s increasingly ambivalent attitude towards the union. Rather than confront the problem, Johnson denied the existence of such an attitude: “not anywhere near me there isn’t.”

This flat out rejection of the facts did not bode well – nor did what came next: empty rhetoric about the power of the British “brand”, patriotic platitudes, and the inevitable dead cat joke; in this instance at the expense of America, described as “our spiritual, cultural and intellectual child.”

The exchange was met with immediate laughter from the audience, with the young conservative all but forgotten. Silly Boris, poking fun at those uppity Americans. Brave Boris, for telling it like it is. Clever Boris, for making us all feel better – because for a moment there, we felt like there was a serious question you hadn’t answered. What was it again?

Once inside the rally, I was immediately and acutely aware that I was the youngest person there by a considerable margin. Identikit Conservative members wearing shirts and chinos (ok, guilty as charged) were everywhere – and yet I felt lonely. Some of these people, according to recent Yougov polling, support reinstating the death penalty – where’s the equality of opportunity in that?

Then I saw Johnson walking through the lobby. I rushed over to him, introduced myself as a young Conservative who had voted for the Lib Dems in the European Elections, and asked my key question: Brexit is a failed project – most young people can see that now. How will you attract young people to a party that offers only catastrophe for their futures?

“Well, you go out and get them then, sign them up.” Then he was gone. I stood there, rocking slightly. I couldn’t quite believe what I had heard. This man not only didn’t have a plan for the future of the party – he was either incapable or not invested enough to pretend he did.

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I was expecting bluster, a joke or two, maybe even just to be waved off as a “Remoaner”. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to be visibly flustered, shaken at the idea that someone at this event didn’t support him unconditionally. It was bizarre. After all the hype around his bumbling charm and easy air, here before me was a man who seemed unable to stand up to a 24-year-old, let alone a foreign leader such as Trump or Putin.

People believe many different things about “BoJo”, but they all fundamentally come down to two illusions about him. The first is that he’s a serious person who will take a stance on what he believes is right rather than try to please the audience of whatever room he finds himself in. The second, which is more difficult to shake off, is that he’s any good at doing so.

Johnson is only charming if you’re willing to play along. That room in Dover was already on his side – as are the majority of the 0.25 per cent of the population who are given a say on who the next prime minister should be.

But if the whole UK were a roomful of one hundred people, how many would be laughing now? And what will happen when the laughter stops entirely?

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