Tom Tugendhat Tolga Olga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Please God, not Tugendhat

Why we should be wary of “credible” candidates

In all likelihood, Tom Tugendhat is a good husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. He has an admirable record of serving his nation. I’m sure you could trust him to take your dog for a walk. It is without personal rancour, then, that I say that Boris Johnson could have been doing cocaine off the despatch box during Prime Minister’s Questions and I would still have preferred to have him as PM to Mr Tugendhat.

He gives journalists and politicians good vibes

Tugendhat may not be the favourite to replace the outgoing prime minister but he has a fighting chance. Several of his colleagues have come out to announce that he would have their support. He has respectability as a veteran, he has a certain amount of personal charisma, and — which is most important — he gives journalists and politicians good vibes

Tugendhat, one former cabinet minister mused to the Guardian, “would be the best chance for a fresh start with someone who has a lot of relevant experience and deep thinking.” What kind of experience? What kind of thinking? Who knows! He’s serious. He frowns a lot in Parliament! Watch!

Another minister, the Guardian reported, “said they were also hoping for Tugendhat to run” — “though he’d need to convince other colleagues he’s got any sort of domestic policy ideas whatsoever.”

A British PM without policy ideas for Britain? Hrm. To be fair, Tugendhat is not entirely without domestic inspiration. He has been quite sensibly supportive of increased energy independence, for example. But a lot of what makes him appear “serious” to journalists and politicians is his hawkish attitude towards foreign affairs.

He was scathing on the subject of the American — and, to a lesser extent, British — withdrawal from Afghanistan. To be sure, there were valid criticisms to be made of the nature of the withdrawal. But Tugendhat did not evince any sign of thinking Western troops should have ever withdrawn. We needed more “patience”, he said, as if there was a realistic chance that a state we had propped up for nineteen years, and which had flopped in a matter of days, would have become competent given a few more. If a man runs head-first into a brick wall nineteen times and it doesn’t break, is he being “patient” or misguided if he continues?

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Tugendhat leapt to a maximally fierce response. “We can freeze Russian assets in this country,” he said, “All of them. We can expel Russian citizens — all of them.” All of them? Of course, I understand being careful about Russians in the UK. We all remember the Skripal. But I’m an evil right-winger and even I’m offended by that level of collective punishment. Did he know what he was saying?

Combining intractable idealism and hot-headed impulsivity is dangerous in foreign affairs. As much as a leader has to be strong, I fear the consequences of letting a wild Tugendhat loose on international affairs.

This demand for deportations was an awkward moment in a career in which Tugendhat has struggled to emphasise that he is not one of the bad Tories. 

Tugendhat has struggled to emphasise that he is not one of the bad Tories

His lowest moment in this quiet campaign of social distancing came when Roger Scruton was dishonestly smeared by the New Statesman as a bigot. Tugendhat rushed to demand his firing as an unpaid adviser to the Housing Ministry, saying, “Antisemitism sits alongside racism, anti-Islam, homophobia, and sexism as a cretinous and divisive belief that has no place in our public life and particularly not in government.” Tugendhat soon apologised, which was welcome, but let down his own apology by saying, “We can only act on the basis of information given.” 

Actually, sometimes you can not act at all — especially when, say, the left-wing press invites you to denounce a great conservative philosopher.

Tugendhat played into the most tedious tendencies of British media culture again when a Guardian column by the comedian Stewart Lee made fun of his name. Lee called Tugendhat, for example, “[a] strange collision of unrelated words”. Now, this was a deeply unfunny column (indeed, Stewart Lee’s Guardian column appears to exist for the sole purpose of embarrassing people who have claimed that he is funny).  But Tugendhat was tiresomely overreacting when he sniffed, “The dog whistle — Jews as foreigners. Again.” I doubt Lee knew that the name was Jewish. I didn’t. Is a dog whistle a dog whistle if it is inaudible?

Besides, Britain needs a leader with a vision for the country. I am not suggesting that Mr Tugendhat doesn’t care. He supports good local causes like Dementia Friends. Indeed, he is a man of causes, always looking for the next moral imperative to highlight or betrayal to decry. He would have loved being alive in the Cold War. But what would he do about inflation and housing? I’m damned if I know.

Granted, Tugendhat is not alone in being a poor candidate for leadership. Liz Truss, the Ayn Bland of British politics, swans about emitting cheerful clichés. The prospect of Prime Minister Suella Braverman, meanwhile, would strike fear into the bravest man. But Tugendhat seemed worth criticising because there are such grim prospects for Conservatives and the media to decide that he is the credible choice. The sensible choice. The moderate choice.

Reader, when I hear the word “credible” I reach for a bottle of whiskey.

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