If the next British prime minister were chosen by the public, or by Conservative voters, or perhaps just by central casting, it might be Tom Tugendhat. The former soldier, and leading hawk on Russia and China, briefly topped opinion polls. He impressed in two TV debates, not least because, unlike the other candidates, he dared to answer whether Boris Johnson is honest with a simple ‘No’.
But he was eliminated from the contest last month: having never been a minister, he failed to attract enough support from fellow MPs. He has now endorsed the frontrunner, foreign secretary Liz Truss, who didn’t share his qualms about working with Johnson and who suggested Tory MPs were wrong to oust him. Such is politics.
“There’s a lot of people I meet who say things like, ‘Oh, I would have voted for you but I’m not a member of the party’. And I’m like: it’s your choice not to be a member of the party. When people say it’s a small number of people who make the decision, well, that’s your choice.”
This is central to the Tugendhat pitch — that British politics needs a clean break with the Johnson era, but not fundamental reform. Although the UK’s conventions have been strained since 2016, although its global reputation for sober government has gone up in flames faster than a Californian forest, things would be all right if those in charge were less louche.
“There’s a danger in all human institutions and in the UK in particular, where we think, ‘this has failed and the answer is X’,” says Tugendhat, 49, in his Westminster office. “For some people, it’s voting reform; for some people, it’s a written constitution; for some people, it’s abolishing the House of Lords. The real answer for all of us is get involved and hold people to account for their integrity.”
After three years in which there was little to stop Boris Johnson from ignoring his ethics advisers, appointing unsuitable cronies to the House of Lords, and telling regular untruths, this seems unsatisfactory. But Tugendhat insists: “All institutions depend on people . . . There is an illusion in the world that you can replace integrity with law. You can’t. You’ve actually got to make sure that your judges, your officials, your whatever, are people of integrity.”
But British politics lacks the right, talented people, doesn’t it? “That’s not true. There are really good people in politics. Look at Gillian Keegan [now a health minister] who made a huge impact on apprenticeships. Look at people like Theresa May, who’s continuing to serve her community.”
There is a risk to being seen as the coming man, especially in the jealous Westminster village. Tugendhat seeks to navigate it by almost aggressive affability. I say that, at the very least, British politics could probably do with less shouting in the House of Commons. “Absolutely,” he smiles. “There is a reason that a lot of us don’t do that.”
Tugendhat’s campaign for integrity was explicitly that of a former soldier — he served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2013 — but it was implicitly that of a judge’s son and husband. His father, Michael, was an English high court judge; his wife, Anissia, is a judge in France’s council of state. “Everything I do is less important than my wife,” he says, only half-joking. The couple have two young children: “I don’t do breakfast meetings — got to take the kids to school. At least a couple of nights a week, I’ll be at home early, because I need to be.”
Tugendhat brings the conversation back time and again to the rule of law, as a key British asset. He was a Remainer, who, shortly after the referendum, joined with Tory rebels forcing May to put her Brexit deal to parliament. But he decided not to rebel further, arguing that, once Brexit was decided, there was no point in any halfway house.
Instead he made his mark as chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, focusing on the City of London’s links to Russia and the UK’s duty to stand up for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This helps to explain his endorsement of Truss, a fellow hawk. Indeed the leadership election has shown that a hardline towards Moscow and Beijing is the Tory consensus. “Talking about China has shifted. It started with a few of us pointing to dragons nesting in our critical communications. Now even the most Chinese-facing voices are looking to build resilience into our economy.”
Tugendhat has chastised various foreign secretaries, including Johnson, and fumed at the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “It is nations that make war; nations endure; nations mobilise and muster; nations determine and have patience,” he said in an impassioned Commons speech. “Here we have demonstrated, sadly, that we — the west, the United Kingdom — do not.”
Does Britain’s diplomacy lack strategy? “The reality is that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, right? Is Ukraine foreign policy? On one level, obviously it is. But rising food prices aren’t, rising energy prices aren’t . . . I would argue for about 20 years we haven’t got this right.”
The Foreign Office has launched worthy initiatives — Tugendhat cites William Hague’s campaign to tackle violence against women and girls — but it should have focused more on energy transition. “You do it by co-operating on nuclear, you do it by doing connector lines from [solar farms in] north Africa [to Devon].”
Britain needs “stable allies”, he says. But doesn’t it risk ending up fairly friendless — on the brink of a trade war with the EU over the Northern Irish protocol, which is likely to affect its relationship with the US? “I don’t agree. I mean, I certainly think we need to have predictable agreements, and you make an agreement, you stick to it. But the reality is that the world is very unstable at the moment.” Fixing the protocol “requires a change in the way we talk to each other, both ways, and it requires a rebuilding of trust.”
One diplomatic embarrassment was the six-year detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, by Tehran. As foreign secretary, Truss was involved in her release, but has also been criticised for not making use of the diplomatic protection extended to Zaghari-Ratcliffe by the previous foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
So who was responsible for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release? “I don’t know. The committee is taking evidence on this at the moment. At the moment, everybody is responsible for her release, and nobody’s responsible for her captivity.”
Tugendhat is among several politicians who embody Britain’s reverence for the military, even as military interventions have ended badly and military procurement has made various blunders. “The purpose of the army is to bring order out of chaos . . . That doesn’t mean that [it] is a cure-all.”
On the spot
Should Boris Johnson appoint 30 peers in his resignation honours? There are enough people in the House of Lords already.
Is it time to legalise assisted dying? When people are vulnerable, you’ve got to be incredibly careful that you don’t increase their vulnerability.
Reagan or Eisenhower? That’s difficult. Reagan.
Should Britons cut their gas use for national security? We should work on insulation, yeah.
Did you support the Iraq war? I thought it was a daft idea, but I was very excited to be going.
Some Tories distrust Tugendhat as overly hawkish. Does British foreign policy need to be more assertive, more ready to intervene militarily abroad? “I don’t think it needs to be more assertive, it needs to be more engaged. Engagement means building up alliances and teamwork.” He cites arming Ukraine and delivering food aid to Afghanistan, since the Taliban takeover, as examples stopping short of intervention.
Tugendhat has made missteps. He once called for Prince Harry to be made ambassador to Washington. In February, after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he said that “we can expel Russian citizens — all of them”. Dominic Cummings, former Johnson adviser, said that comment should disqualify him from “any serious job”; Tugendhat later clarified he was referring only to Russians connected with Putin’s regime.
Did he ever doubt his own ability to be prime minister? “I’m constantly asking myself if I’m doing things well enough. And I’m constantly hoping that somebody better will come along. One of the things about democracy is that . . . we all have a responsibility to offer ourselves to serve.” He would love to be foreign secretary, but says: “I will serve in whatever capacity I’m asked to serve.” Even as a junior minister? “I’m not arguing jobs with you!”
The obvious comparison is with Rory Stewart, another with experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, who briefly lit up the 2019 Conservative leadership campaign, mainly among non-Conservatives, but then left parliament altogether. “He’s a much better writer than I am,” demurs Tugendhat. But the true difference is that Tugendhat is a much more loyal Tory. “I’ve never been anything else, and it’s never occurred to me to be anything else.”
He was first elected in 2015, when the then party leader David Cameron said Britain faced “a simple and inescapable choice — stability and strong government with me, or chaos with [Labour’s] Ed Miliband”. In hindsight, would Britain have been better off with chaos with Miliband? Tugendhat smiles ruefully. “No. It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons David Cameron’s [Brexit] gamble didn’t pay off is that he thought Labour would deliver some of the Remain votes, and [Jeremy] Corbyn made sure that didn’t happen. These movements are national. Let’s not pretend it’s down to one party.” Unlike Truss, he does not pretend that Brexit was a good idea in hindsight.
Among Tugendhat’s reasons for backing Truss are immediate tax cuts. He abstained on Johnson’s rise in national insurance, to pay for increased social care. So how can Britain square the circle between the higher defence and aid spending that Tugendhat wants, a continued commitment to levelling up and public services, and lower taxes? His answer is growth via entrepreneurship. “Our lifestyle is not sustainable unless we grow this economy. [But] we can transform the British economy building on what made us great in the past.” It’s not entirely convincing. Even in the dying days of the Johnson regime, even among those with integrity, there is only so much truth that the Conservative party can accommodate.