Bret Stephens: The prime minister Britain needs now

Tom Tugendhat is probably the only leader in Britain who understands the stakes.

(Matt Dunham | AP photo) In this March 29, 2017, photo, British Union flag waves in front of the Elizabeth Tower at Houses of Parliament containing the bell know as "Big Ben" in central London.

When Tom Tugendhat was about 20, he felt he needed a better understanding of North Africa. So he traveled overland from Morocco to Israel, skipping only Libya because it wouldn’t let him in. Much of the journey he did on foot.

“Why North Africa?” I asked when we spoke by phone Sunday. “Because it’s … there?” he replied half-jokingly, an echo of George Mallory’s line about climbing Mount Everest. Unlike Mallory, Tugendhat survived the trip. He mastered Arabic in Yemen and worked as a journalist in Lebanon before turning to soldiery a few years later.

Tugendhat has survived a few other things on his way to becoming a serious contender for leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and thus Boris Johnson’s successor as prime minister.

Among them: A 10-hour firefight during his service in Iraq, in which he was wounded twice by friendly fire. Service in Afghanistan, where he was decorated by the 82nd Airborne Division after the capture of Musa Qala — a rare distinction for a non-American. And opposition to Brexit, which might have spelled political death for him as a Tory had he not distinguished himself as Parliament’s most compelling and credible voice on foreign affairs.

In the interest of full disclosure: He’s also managed to endure a friendship of many years with me — which hopefully won’t kill him in the end.

Tugendhat is bidding for Conservative leadership at a bleak time for traditional parties of the center right, in Britain and other democracies. The basic problem: They are stale at their diminished center and nutty at their expanding fringe. To put it another way: Where there is sense, there is not much charisma; where there is charisma, there is almost no sense.

That’s been the pattern in Britain under the past dozen years of Tory leadership. There was the colorless and technocratic David Cameron, who lost the vote on Brexit. There was the colorless and overmatched Theresa May, who fumbled the execution of Brexit. There was the nothing if not colorful Boris Johnson, who got Brexit done (and in whom I once placed modest hopes) but lacked the moral character and political principles to make it work. As Johnson once said of himself, “You can’t rule out the possibility that beneath the elaborately constructed veneer of a blithering idiot, there lurks a blithering idiot.”

Tugendhat, by contrast, represents three things the current party is not.

The first is an older ideal of conservatism, reminiscent of John McCain’s or Winston Churchill’s, in which a sense of honor (personal, martial and national) is paramount. If that seems fusty, it’s also the best possible cure to Johnson’s political legacy, which has been the destruction of trust — in the Conservative Party, in government, in Britain itself. If Conservatives can’t restore that trust, quickly, they will struggle to hold on to power.

The second is that Tugendhat, unlike the tax-raising Johnson and former chancellor Rishi Sunak, is serious in his philosophical commitment to economic freedom. “We became a party that thought economics was about profit, not liberty,” he told me. “Liberty is not an economic project. But it will deliver growth, prosperity and happiness if you focus on freeing people from constraints.”

The third is that Tugendhat is deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs — and about war. These days, that would be a vital asset not only for Britain but for all of NATO.

Tugendhat received international praise last year after delivering a gut punch of a speech in the House of Commons, denouncing the Afghanistan withdrawal. “The reason I was so angry is that I knew this would encourage our enemies,” he said. “The fundamental betrayal was of the British people and our allies, because our enemies would see us as weak.”

Among those enemies is Vladimir Putin. How does the free world meet the challenge he poses in Ukraine? “The Ukrainians are going through battlefield stocks in hours what we are supplying in weeks; we need to increase the rate of fire.” The more important aim, he added, is to put Putin in a position where he thinks he might lose.

“Only then will he negotiate — and only then will it be worth negotiating with him,” Tugendhat said.

The West — Washington especially — could use a leader who thinks in these terms, particularly in the face of a protracted war in which Moscow may use its energy leverage over Europe to pressure Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war from a position of weakness. Doing what it takes to help Ukraine win may exhaust NATO, but falling short will kill both Ukraine and the alliance.

Tugendhat is probably the only leader in Britain who understands the stakes viscerally. There are Conservatives who will never forgive him for opposing Brexit (how’s that going, by the way?), but Brexit is an accomplished fact. The surest way to put a party on a path to defeat is for it to spend its time settling old scores rather than facing present or looming dangers. A West that confronts the challenges of war needs a warrior to lead it.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.