Rishi Sunak and Tom Tugendhat with presenter Julie Etchingham during Britain's Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate at Riverside Studios on July 17, 2022 in London (Photo by Jonathan Hordle / ITV via Getty Images)

In defence of centrist dads

Tom Tugendhat was a man for the hour

Artillery Row

I don’t believe in “centrism”. I believe in winning. If you have values, you should want them to prevail, not dissolve in a centrist soup of convenience and confected consensus. The “Third Way” didn’t, ultimately, bring about unity or moderation. It served only those who got to define what the consensus was — mostly the hyper-liberal social values and rampant free market economics of wealthy urbanites.

Why, and how, was I doing Tugendhat’s comms?

But there is a lot, I think, to be said for the “Centrist Dads” of politics. A particular way of doing politics, not an ideology. There is much to praise about the open-minded, self-styled good guys who make a heartfelt effort to listen to bickering parties and carve a way forward in fraught times. There are periods in politics and history where unifying, father-like figures are needed to bring ideological factions together to confront common challenges. Challenges like the worst ground war in Europe since the march of Hitler, and the worst cost of living crisis since the candle-lit evenings of the 1970s. 

For me, the man to confront this moment was Tom Tugendhat. His pitch to the party, and the nation, was one of strong leadership, service (did we mention he was in the army?) and a break from the default settings of the outgoing one — which included regularly raking up rows to distract from their own incompetence, debauchery and hypocrisy.

I campaigned for Brexit and in another life worked for The Brexit Party and Nigel Farage. Tom was a prominent Remainer who subsequently voted for Theresa May’s awkward and ultimately unsatisfactory exit deals. Why, and how, was I doing Tugendhat’s comms, as a number of my Brexit allies texted me after I was spotted on the campaign trail with Tom. 

I knew Tom a little from my many attempts to book him onto TV shows. I knew he was deeply conservative despite the “centrist” characterisation. I knew he was one of the nicest, most compelling blokes in politics. And I knew he could get-stuff-done. 

In our first policy heavy team chat of the short-lived campaign, Tom asked me what I wanted to hear from him on Brexit. He then turned to a Remainer on the team and asked if they could accept my stance. He never asked either of us to change our minds. He asked: how can we convince both sides to trust us? He wanted to find a way to keep us under the same tent to take on Labour. He has begun to talk more fondly and emotionally about Brexit, like many thoughtful Remainers, but I believe his desire to make a success of our exit from the EU was genuine from the beginning.

In my view, Brexit was a much-needed, era-defining push back against globalisation and the denigration of national communities, cultures and workers. Globalisation has brought us cheaper goods, better food and higher living standards but its collateral was those in insecure work and/or unready for rapid social change. Globalisation is irresistible (and those who fought for Remain were largely smart and well-meaning) but, at least for now, a group previously denied a say in the process is being listened to. 

Yet now, after the Brexit correction, we have new challenges. As conservatives, we need to get past old divisions or we risk a socialist government taking power on a narrative of grievance and economic unfairness. Tom is the first politician — certainly the first Remainer — I’ve heard make a convincing case for post-Brexit unity and trust. He told me there are two ways to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol. “We can punch Macron in the face,” he said, which is what some people in the outgoing government have been perceived as doing. “Or, we can work the diplomatic halls of Europe,” he added, giving the example of how Britain’s firm support for Eastern Europe against Putin could lead to smaller states backing our calls in Brussels for the protocol to be reformed.

I did a fair bit of political punching to get Brexit over the line. We had to when taking on the establishment. But the government has continued with this approach and the UK has started to look like the teenager who, after getting expelled for playground fights, now stands outside the school gates at finishing time, looking for more. We had maybe six or seven rounds of “red meat” policy announcements to mask self-inflicted controversies in the dying days of Boris’s administration. They were policy scraps thrown to us conservatives, like we were starving pets, whilst stoking yet more petty media scraps. It was government by fist fight.

Speaking ill of anyone is not in Tom’s nature

Tom wasn’t interested in policy scraps. On issues that really matter he was open to real dialog with the right of the party. His environmentalism is well known, and more established than Boris’, but during the campaign he said he would only pursue Net Zero with a properly costed plan that would not expose us to higher bills and energy insecurity, whilst off-shoring critical industries to China and Russia. For this rational approach I received a barrage of emails accusing him of “backtracking”. But Tom stood firm. We were being realistic and pushing Net Zero forward, not backwards. 

He also opened himself up to the Rwanda plan, despite initial, principled opposition, as long as the plan can work (which is still unclear). He was the only candidate to stand firm on the need to protect women’s single sex spaces without ever speaking ill of the experience of trans people.

Speaking ill of anyone is not in Tom’s nature, to be fair, and his ability to connect with political opponents and hostile journalists is impressive. He is unreasonably nice. Infuriatingly so. We were almost late for a number of important interviews because he wouldn’t stop chatting with every other fan, politico or loudmouth in the Westminster village. If Boris was the man to redraw political allegiances, Tom was the man to hold the new ones together. 

We took some heat for a comment Tom made (a comment highlighted in this magazine), which unfavourably framed as him saying there was a possibility the UK could expel Russian citizens after the war. The comment was clumsily worded, yes, but it was not a demand. It was a warning of where war can lead. If anyone thinks Tom would wish indiscriminate harm on innocent citizens of Russia, they are misled. He has spoken of how Russians are Putin’s primary victims.

The tragedy of the Johnson government was that it could have been truly amazing. It had a huge conservative mandate but, on domestic issues, proceeded to give in to left wing demands on lockdown policy, taxation, online censorship and many social issues whilst fighting petty battles over the few right wing issues it tried to advance. Its list of enemies was as impressively diverse as it was long. 

So, so much energy was wasted on denying grubby accusations of impropriety. Aside from the odd cheesy dad joke, Tom would be safe from such scandal. All the other candidates are fine, fine people, but there is a lot to be said for the sound values of a Centrist Dad and a military man. The Tory party should know this from history. 

Intriguingly, the person who replaces Boris is likely to be neither the public’s favourite (Tom), the membership’s favourite (Penny) nor the MP’s favourite (Rishi). Yes, it’s easy to lash out at the rules of the game when you lose, and all the candidates have merit, but it is perhaps time for the Conservative party, the 1922 Committee, to examine their own constitution. 

This is not the time for political bitch fights. Real fighting is happening in Europe and many can’t pay their bills. Now is a time for conservative unity — a cliché, perhaps, but not an empty platitude.

Tom’s ethos of service was infectious and timely. It cut through the fog, and whoever becomes PM next will be influenced by it. Whether they have space for “centrist dads” is another question, but perhaps it’s time to rehabilitate this once pejorative term, too.

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