Watching Hancock and colleagues humiliate themselves in the service of a Johnson premiership, it is hard not to recall the agonies of Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney when dealing with Trump. With Johnson, the lack of an agreed “line” is more understandable—he has, for these past weeks, only been a candidate, not a leader—but Trump has smashed the idea of political-message discipline. He has regularly left his party and his media surrogates scrambling to answer for his scattered, contradictory thoughts and inflammatory language.
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Still, for anyone who finds the spectacle of self-abasing outriders embarrassing, it’s sobering to realize that their disappearance might be worse. Hancock, Rudd, and other new Johnson supporters demonstrate how Brexit is tearing the Conservatives apart, with an activist wing pulling further away from the mainstream represented by most of its members of Parliament. The outriders’ humiliation is the sign that the party has not yet been completely captured by ultra-hard-line euroskeptics among its membership.
Saunders notes that Leave.EU, the unofficial anti-EU campaign once led by Nigel Farage, has been encouraging its supporters to join the Conservatives, and that the party had left itself “open to takeover by an activist base.” In the case of Conservative lawmakers, he says, the party has been “taken over by someone they thought should not be prime minister.”
There are fewer obviously tortured outriders among Republicans, because Trump’s capture of the party is more advanced. Almost no one attempted to defend his racist remarks ordering minority Democrats to “go back” to other countries. Excuses would have been unedifying. Their absence is alarming. The idea of the final stage—when Republicans really do love Big Brother, and willingly go out to defend such remarks—is horrifying.
“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” James Comey, the former director of the FBI, wrote in The New York Times in May. To stay in Trump’s good graces, “you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values. And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”
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That should be a warning to Britain. The country is moving to a more presidential style, with a more direct relationship between leaders and their bases, Saunders argues. “In the past, a leader’s authority came from their MPs,” he says. “A leader had to court MPs and bid for their support. But now their authority comes from outside, from the activists. So MPs now have to court the leadership candidate.”
The end result is Matt Hancock, embarrassing himself on television on behalf of a leader who prefers to avoid unfriendly media encounters. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that political careers are now so short—Hancock only joined Parliament in 2010—and 24/7 news is perpetually hungry. Outriders are under greater pressure than ever. Their abasement is uncomfortable. The alternative could be worse.