Dominic Raab wants us to know that he’s the man to negotiate with Brussels. Or at least, his friends do. Writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, the former Tory MP Nick de Bois recalled his time as Raab’s chief of staff at the Brexit department. It’s a paean that reaches a climax with a description of Michel Barnier ripping out his earpiece, and includes the line: “I have seen Dominic Raab look Michel Barnier in the eye and it wasn’t Dominic who blinked first.” Which is joyous news, if you use ocular moisture levels as your marker of greatness.
Not everyone agrees that Raab played a blinder in Brussels. In the recent BBC4 documentary Brexit: Behind Closed Doors, we do indeed see Barnier tell a meeting that Raab made threats Theresa May “never dared to say”, but he also claims that Raab immediately backed down when challenged. (“He immediately took his words back … he is not always into nuances, Dominic Raab.”) So much for the Art of the Deal.
But the most dangerous aspect of the War of Barnier’s Earpiece is precisely that it’s all about who said what to whom in Brussels. Team Raab is clear in its intention to present the Brexit crisis as the criterion on which we should be selecting the next prime minister. And yes, that is clearly the most imminent crisis facing the country. But as Brexit continues to suck the oxygen from all other areas of government policy, there is a danger of electing a prime minister whose domestic agenda hasn’t been sufficiently examined. Yesterday’s Augar review into further education funding passed with nary a word of comment from the candidates.
We face crises as a society beyond Brexit. That should be obvious from yesterday’s row over the shameful protests by homophobic parents which are now spreading outside schools in Birmingham. The protesters, if one distils a torrent of misinformation, object primarily to an early years programme which introduces the idea that social relationships are diverse. These protesters project a narrow, reactionary version of Islam, but Tory leadership candidate Esther McVey jumped in yesterday to make common cause. Though she criticised the nature of the protests outside school buildings, McVey defended the right of parents to remove their children from classes which teach “certain forms of sex and relationship education”.
The clashes, which began at Parkfield community school in Saltley, Birmingham, are the messy, human embodiment of the abiding cultural tension of modern Britain: can we build a liberal, open society while protecting the civil liberties of people who associate on the basis of rejecting those values? When it comes to protecting children from homophobia, whether from conservative Muslims, evangelical Christians or even radical Conservative constituency associations, the answer should be clear. Every Tory leadership candidate should be asked how they would tackle the Birmingham school question. If the Tory membership still choose to elect a candidate who’s OK with this discrimination, at least the rest of us will know who we’re dealing with.
Some leadership candidates have publicly criticised McVey. Last night, Kit Malthouse responded with a pointed celebration of the LGBT+ Conservatives group; the defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt, who is likely to officially launch her run next week, tweeted her support for the “age-appropriate” No Outsiders programme.
Mordaunt is also one of the few candidates who clearly grasps that the Conservative party needs a comprehensive policy offer, rather than just more Brexit rows. In an article published on the Conservative Home website yesterday, she criticised the May government for dereliction of broader policy reform: “The major challenges for our country, from social care to social mobility, still largely reside under a thick layer of dust in the ‘too tough’ in-tray.” Mordaunt began her piece by highlighting the care scandal at Whorlton Hall, in which vulnerable and disabled people were abused; Rory Stewart has also admirably promised to prioritise the crisis in social care.
But what of Raab, Boris Johnson and Steve Baker, the great Brexit hardmen? Do they have a promise for the nation beyond 31 October? Johnson, as an acerbic enemy recently told the Financial Times, “is the Kama Sutra candidate: he’s held every position on every conceivable topic.” Baker spends a lot of time talking about returning to the gold standard – he has written about carrying an ounce of silver in his pocket, just in case it gives him the opportunity to deliver the line, “I can’t afford to lose an ounce of gold”. (It’s funny if you’re into Austrian economics. Honest.)
As for Raab’s hinterland, recent days have finally established that the man who called feminists “obnoxious bigots” does not consider himself a feminist. More broadly, Raab has long been one of a counter-Cameron generation of Tories who draw direct inspiration from the anti-bureaucratic vision of Margaret Thatcher. In 2012, he teamed up with Liz Truss, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Chris Skidmore to write a neo-Thatcherite manifesto, Britannia Unchained.
For those of us who actually believe in small-state economics, it would be no bad thing for the Tory party to renounce the Miliband-lite market interventionalism pioneered by May. (Or perhaps we should call it socialism – which is exactly what May called it when Miliband proposed the policies she later nicked.) But within the purity of his vision, Raab never gives the impression of having charity for those left out by the economic survival of the fittest. Just prior to the publication of Britannia Unchained, a row kicked off about a line in the book which alleged that, “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.” Many suggested the line was written by Truss. In fact, as I confirmed when researching Truss for The Honourable Ladies, Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith’s forthcoming collection of essays on female MPs, it was written by Raab.
What would a Raab government look like, beyond the glorious point at which the “details man” delivers a sunshine Brexit? We can make guesses, and those guesses don’t yield a gentle landscape. But we must ensure that every candidate in this contest is asked for a vision for the nation, not just a negotiating strategy for Brussels. There is life beyond Brexit.
• Kate Maltby writes about theatre, politics and culture