They’re always up to something, those Tories. They aren’t the most successful political party in the world for no reason. Their ability to move from reactionary to reformist, from anti-democratic, to the extenders of the franchise in the 19th Century demonstrates a breathtaking ability to ride any wave. And in the 20th and the 21st Century that shapeshifting has continued, giving us the political folk wisdom that the ruthless Tories want to stay in power so much that they will ditch any leader once he or she starts to look like a liability.
But I’m not sure that the Conservative Party retains that superpower any more. When it was “men in smoke filled rooms” who appointed leaders perhaps it was easier to conclude that a change at the top was necessary, and to act decisively. Indeed, the Tories of old weren’t actually a party in any contemporary sense. The ‘party’ existed in Parliament, and comprised Peers and MPs. The ‘party in the country’ was a network of ‘Conservative Associations’, membership of which was as much social as ideological, perhaps more so. They certainly held little sway over the orientation, policies and leaders of the party in Parliament.
These days the party membership elects the leader, from a shortlist of two, decided, in rounds of voting, by the MPs. Moreover, that membership is small (how small we don’t really know, perhaps 70,000?), heavily white and male, with an average age of 72. How well, collectively, they can read and anticipate the feelings of the wider electorate is perhaps open to question.
And so to 2022, Plague Year Three, and growing signs of panic in the Tory ranks. The party is now consistently trailing in the polls. A poll of Tory members https://news.sky.com/story/nearly-half-of-conservative-members-think-rishi-sunak-would-make-better-party-leader-than-boris-johnson-poll-12512455 shows tumbling confidence in their leader. Troublesome backbench groups like the Covid Recovery Group, the Northern Research Group of Red Wall MPs, and the Net Zero group (https://www.itv.com/news/2021-07-31/tory-backbenchers-prepare-to-fight-cost-of-net-zero-greenhouse-gas-emissions) all suggest that a lot of unhappy rumbling is going on within the party, both in Westminster, and more broadly. There have even been fears reported in the Mail on Sunday of new MPs crossing the floor of the House (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10382665/No10-fear-Red-Wall-chicken-run-defections-Labour.html).
How has a government elected with a huge majority just two years ago ended up so fractious and jittery?
Some explanations are obvious. The party might just have won a landslide, but it’s been in power for twelve years. Brexit isn’t the cakewalk that was promised – quite the reverse – and as for the pandemic, the government has had to face tsunami, after earthquake, after storm. It’s taken a battering.
But this feels like something more than the consequences of external events, or in the case of Brexit, the unintended consequences of an adventure with no agreed purpose or outcomes. It feels like something organic, intrinsic to the contemporary Tory Party, a malignancy.
The Tory Party at its most confident and successful has been disciplined, inclined to resist change for change’s sake, traditionalist, ‘respectable‘ in middle class terms, and studiedly unideological. The system it ruled worked well for Tory interests, and they could see no reason to favour change. Strong, and stable, you might say.
The inflection point, as with so much, seems to go back to Thatcher. She was, or was persuaded to become, ideologically committed. Sir Keith Joseph, a Leeds MP and with something of a reputation as an intellectual in the party, was a key influence. They repudiated what was called ‘the post-war settlement’ of a ‘mixed economy and a welfare state’, and marched the party towards neo-liberalism, what was then often called the New Right. I remember seeing Thatcher era minister, Peter Lilley, now a Brexiter Peer, addressing a packed Tory Party Conference fringe meeting about ten years ago, pumping his fist whilst declaring to the adoring audience, “we were the Leninists of the New Right!”
But Thatcher’s success was less to do with her ideological clarity of purpose, than with her deft melding of neo-liberal novelty with very traditional social conservatism. Ideology only went so far (to the evident frustration at the time of younger Thatcherites, like Lilley, Redwood, and Portillo.
Once Thatcher had been deposed, for the overreach that was the poll tax, the ability to hold together the Conservative Party, a party having become a hotbed of ideologues, was beyond any new leader. Major did his best, beset by ‘bastards’. William Hague, unsuited to the leadership, and facing a confident Labour government, struggled. Iain Duncan Smith was in some ways the best ideological fit for an increasingly Eurosceptic party, but lacked any discernible leadership skills. Michael Howard was hapless, undermined by his own MPs (who can forget Anne Widdecombe’s insidious “something of the night about him” comment?), and in any case ran an election campaign with a negative tone wholly at odds with a Labour government which still looked shiny and optimistic.
Then came David Cameron. In today’s faction-ridden Tory Party, some see Cameron, with George Osborne, as their Blair and Brown, the charismatic and clear sighted reformers who remade their party as a credible electoral force. But the PR gloss of social liberalism might have given the Tories a bit of a makeover in 2010 and 2015, but it was barely skin deep. The hugging of huskies and hoodies soon gave way to muttering about “Green Crap”. The march of the libertarians accelerated under Cameron. ‘Austerity’ went where Margaret Thatcher never dared. Centralisation gathered pace, local government lost up to 50% of its income, the NHS was ‘reformed’ to make it easier to privatise by stealth, and the state itself was hollowed out, stripped of capacity, institutional memory, skills and independence; something made starkly obvious by the pandemic.
But it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough for the party the Conservatives have become, an unserious party of ‘fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists’ as David Cameron once called UKIP. After Cameron’s ill-advised referendum in 2016, the UKIP membership has almost entirely decamped to the Tories.
The Brexit referendum threw an unforgiving spotlight on the Conservative Party, though one which too few have commented upon. It is the left that is more often prey to the sin of political vanity which makes them think that capturing the levers of power in a party enables them to steer it like a vehicle in any direction they choose, but Cameron, a PR man in his only real job, also believed that he could steer a referendum using the same tactics that had made him PM, and then won the Tories their first general election in eighteen years. In other words, he really didn’t understand his party, nor the wider political culture that sustains it. As someone in his camp said during the campaign, “Now we know what it’s like to be Ed Miliband”.
From 1832 to the mid-1970s, the Tory Party was an intelligent and flexible force, marshalling their formidable resources, both financial and cultural, to become an almost unstoppable election winning machine. It was genuinely representative of key interests in the country – business, finance, the leadership of the great institutions, like the military, the Church, the judiciary, the universities. It had an authentic appeal to the middle class, who joined the party in their hundreds of thousands. The press was mostly on its side.
But since the 1970s, despite the party’s continued political dominance (with a 13 year interregnum), the ecosystem that supported the Tories has changed radically, and in ways not yet widely understood. (The same is true for Labour, though the effects there are more obvious.) Globalisation, the replacement of industry by finance capital and services, the growing inequality of regions as a consequence, the rise in the numbers of people attending university, migration, rapid technological change, and much else, has altered the landscape. The idea that the Tory world view might by synonymous with that of the Church, the law, leaders of higher education and the great cultural institutions is now palpably absurd. Far from sitting atop a stable pyramid of power, the party surfs the waves of fickle opinion, bankrolled by a footloose selection of assorted chancers, oligarchs, kleptocrats.
And the party’s shrunken membership, with its very own Militant Tendency of former Faragistes, is not the potent force on the ground it once was. Camera phone footage of a raucous looking party meeting in 2019 in former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s then constituency of Beaconsfield at the height of Brexit faction fights looked far from the 1950s vision of the Tories as a place where your daughter or son might find a respectable marriage partner https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dominic-grieve-traitor-liar-local-conservatives-constituents-no-confidence-a8847266.html.
Brexit was no aberration, no spasm, no moment of madness. Because it is a symptom, not a cause, a malignancy that needed, and continues to need an outlet. The pandemic, or rather it’s handling, has been a temporary vehicle for the rebels in search of a cause. But that will fade. ‘Net Zero’ is shaping up as this century’s Europhobia; not climate change denial, which has never flown in this country, despite the best efforts of ‘think tanks’ and paid advocates. Rather, they will tout a combination of ‘head in the sand’, and a mock regretfulness that ‘nothing we do matters’ in the face of giants like the US, China and Russia.
And so here we are in 2022. Whether Johnson remains leader of the Tory Party is being discussed openly by party members, but the sullen and sometimes volatile electorate in the short term might deliver any outcome this year, from a pasting in the local elections, to a stunning victory for a Teflon PM, or for his successor. The immediate fate of this government, however, isn’t the question.
The real question is what is the Tory Party for, and who, or what, does it represent. Is it a coherent and sustainable force, long term?
Because from here it looks very much like a powerful, malevolent, but terminally ill beast kept on life support by the distortions of the First Past the Post voting system.