They came wearing red evening dresses and sashes, like something from a bygone age of suffragette protests. Or perhaps that should be suffragists, the more peaceful wing of the movement. For the climate crisis campaigners who set out to disrupt the chancellor’s annual Mansion House speech to the City had done all they could to look unthreatening, knowing that politicians are understandably jumpy about personal security nowadays. The protest was female-led, Greenpeace explained, in the hope of keeping it calm.
Some hope. The police are investigating precisely what happened when protester Janet Barker walked behind the Conservative MP Mark Field, apparently heading towards the top table holding the great and good. But film of Field leaping up and grappling with her, before frog-marching her out with a hand around her neck, has gone viral for good reason. Whatever the police investigation concludes, it is hard to think of a more toxic image of Conservatism than an angry-looking man in black tie manhandling a woman away from a fancy banquet. Brute male force versus plucky female resistance; cosy privileged club versus outsider somewhere she wasn’t invited. No wonder we can’t stop watching and re-watching it.
It arguably says something about Field that of all the diners she passes, he is the only one to shove back his chair. But the public reaction to what he did speaks volumes, too. To pick a side in this argument is to place yourself quite clearly on a spectrum running from those who are naturally at ease with conventional authority, through to those with good reason to fear it.
So many women will watch that footage of Barker being shoved against a wall, and instinctively wince. You don’t need to have felt the sharp edge of a man’s temper to be afraid of it, and there is something viscerally disturbing about the sight of a hand closing in on a vulnerable neck. If he really thought she was so dangerous, why not wrestle her to the ground? And if he just wanted to get her out before she caused trouble, why not steer her by the elbow? As it is, the whole thing looks horribly reminiscent of a controlling husband, hustling away a wife who has had a few drinks at a party and is now in danger of making a scene, while everyone else stares uncomfortably at their shoes.
But not everyone will see it that way. All over the country this morning, there will have been millions of Tory voters harrumphing that frankly she got what was coming to her; that it was her fault for bursting into a private dinner, wilfully causing a security scare when she must have known everyone was on edge. What happened split the room, never mind the country, with some guests reportedly horrified at what they saw as an overreaction while others broke into applause after she was removed.
Field’s fellow diners have been criticised in some quarters for failing to step in and calm things down, but in the heat of the moment it isn’t always that simple. Theresa May’s cabinet were mocked for sitting around helplessly when a man (who thankfully turned out merely to be a comedian pulling off a stunt) suddenly lunged towards the podium during her 2017 party conference speech. But all I can say, having been there at the time, is that it takes longer than you think for the brain to catch up with the evidence right in front of your eyes. Most bystanders’ natural response is to freeze in profoundly unheroic confusion, because they can’t quite believe what they’re seeing; surely this can’t be real?
But watching the Mansion House film back in the cold light of day, it is simply impossible not to form a view.
We know which side May is on, at least: she rightly suspended Field, with Downing Street confirming that she found the footage “very concerning”. Jeremy Hunt, whose leadership bid Field was supporting, chose to emphasise his colleague’s apology while adding that “he recognises that what happened was an overreaction”. But the biggest test of character here is perhaps for Boris Johnson, since those who instinctively sympathise with Field are now his natural constituency.
Johnson’s path to the leadership in the current climate lies through the sort of Tory members grumbling that a man can’t even act like a man any more without being vilified for it, plus those sick of being preached at by what they see as sanctimonious lefties chipping away at the lifestyles they lead. Many of them regard Hunt as suspiciously wet, warming instead to Johnson’s incorrigible political incorrectness. But are these really the followers he wants? His reaction over the coming days is a fascinating test of what kind of leader he wants to be.
At a debate hosted by the Policy Exchange thinktank last week, the strategist Lynton Crosby, widely expected to run Johnson’s first general election campaign if he becomes leader, sketched out how he thought the Tories might win again. The model is Scott Morrison, the Australian politician who confounded pollsters, bookies and pundits by winning a surprise re-election victory shortly after assuming the leadership of the governing Liberal party. Morrison had, Crosby explained, pitched himself as the man for “quiet Australians” – people who don’t follow politics closely, aren’t active on social media, and just want to be left to get on with life – and won by aligning himself with their gut values. The next Tory leader should also pitch themselves as being on the side of what the Australian prime minister Robert Menzies famously called the “forgotten people”, better known here as John Major’s “silent majority”, Tony Blair’s “hardworking families”, and David Cameron’s middle income “strivers”. It may seem an oddly retro approach for the unpredictable times we’re living through, but Crosby clearly still believes elections all come down in the end to telling a story of shared, broadly socially conservative values.
And that’s why the Mansion House incident matters; it’s a perfect litmus test of where people stand on those values. Deep down, are you socially liberal pink or socially conservative blue? If the latter, do you believe a true gentleman never lifts a hand to a woman, or that women can’t go around demanding equality and then expecting special treatment? Are you more afraid of cosy consensus forming behind closed doors, or of the chaos unleashed by someone breaking through them? All of us know, in our guts, how we’d answer even if we might avoid saying so publicly. Do not trust the politician who seeks election without having the courage to spell it out.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist