I confess I am utterly intrigued by the current politics of the Conservative party. While strong political positions are often tossed aside lightly, it is rare that they are thrown away with such great force.
The phrase du jour is apparently Omnishambles. I think this is wrong. An omnishambles implies a lack of causation, an inevitability of buffoonery. We all have Omnishamble moments. A more appropriate, though more tired, metaphor is the seven car pile up. Like all such the current Tory smash up is a spectacle, albeit a gruesome one, which attracts crowds. Some are there to mourn and others -me included- are simply marveling at the strange contortions of the various wrecks visible at the scene and wondering how each came to be in their twisted state.
In addition, like a car crash, the current Tory crisis has causes. Sure, the Qatada deportation is the sort of unfortunate snafu that affects all governments, but everything else, from Pasties to Nadine Dorries outbursts to the IMF disquiet is the result of deliberate choices made by the Conservative leadership.
Some go back years, others are more recent. Yet each can be traced back to tactical choices which seemed worthwhile to gain power, or secure political advantage, but have since returned to damage the entire Conservative modernisation project.
1. History: How the missed battle with the Tory right (and the arrogance of coalition) is haunting the Tories today
The biggest problem the Conservatives have results, I think from the circumstances of David Cameron's leadership bid itself. It may seem strange now, but back in 2005, David Davis was preparing to don the mantle of Neil Kinnock. Quietly, he and his team were briefing people that although he was going to win the leadership election on the strength of his position on the right of the party and his appeal as a "Bootstraps" Tory, his policy agenda would be markedly centrist.
We forget now, but back when David Davis started his leadership campaign he stood on the "Modern Conservative" brand and said:
"I want to build a new consensus for change, using modern conservative ideas to achieve the goal of social justice which for too long have been claimed by the left:
- opportunity for the many and not just the privileged few.
- public services as good as those of our European neighbours.
- a strong economy and a better society"
Gosh. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Of course it does.
Who introduced Davis at that event? Why, reformist Tory David Willets. Other supporters included current modernisers like Andrew Mitchell, Nick Herbert and the famous Polly Toynbee fan, Greg Clark. The problem was that for all "DD's" campaign claimed to be that of a "Modern Conservative", Davis himself appeared a terribly unmodern Conservative. He looked old school. He posed for embarrassing photos with nubile women in tight t-shirts. He gave interviews in which he described himself as a male chauvinist pig. Against this fresh, relaxed, charming, even charismatic David Cameron could easily steal the image of modernism.
The resulting problem was that Cameron didn't really need to steal the reform policy agenda. In fact, to win the leadership he had to find alternative sources of support. So, the phrases were modernising, but the actual battles were ducked. Indeed, in the crucial early phases, Cameron discovered that he needed to lock up the votes of the Tory eurosceptic MPs. Davis, confident of victory, had refused to indulge the hard core eurosceptics with promises of leaving the European People's Party. Cameron was prepared to play to the right wing gallery, and use a combination of modern image and policy vagueness to ensure the "reformer" label fell into his lap without ever having to win a policy fight on centrist grounds. Instead, Cameron was able to present himself as a "right-moderniser" supportive of conservative solutions.
One of the noticeable things about the whole Cameronian project in opposition was that it proceeded by identifying relatively small political issues (Environment, Overseas Aid, candidate selection) to brand Cameron as a different kind of Tory, while fights on issues of substance, from Europe to tax to Grammar schools were repeatedly fudged, often with a wink and a nod to the Tory right (Remember a grammar stream in every school?). Even on the NHS, the opposition Conservative position was essentially a "leave it in aspic' position, with "No hospital closures" the campaign emphasis. Even the green agenda, of course, seemed more photo-op than policy.
Further, as Labour imploded, the political need to redefine the Conservative party on big issues receded. Even in the one big area where Cameron and Osborne had made a change, Conservative strategy was reversed in the wake of the financial crisis, The Conservatives moved from matching Labour spending plans to establishing clear blue water through austerity. Why decontaminate yourselves when your opponent is a political Chernobyl? I maintain this was a disastrous political mistake for the Tory party. Apart from anything else, it signalled to the Tory party that the leadership felt that a right wing agenda could take them to victory.
Yet in failing to win the General Election, Cameron took the chance to define himself as beyond and above his party. By forming the coalition, he happily gave up a lot of the baggage he'd been carrying with him from the Tory right since his election as leader. There were bound to be rumblings about this eventually, but as long as the Tories had a strong political position, they would never trouble Cameron.
What was odd though was the way in which Cameron subsequently went out of his way to humiliate those who had bought his right-reformist flannel.
Douglas Carswell was being praised by Cameron as late as 2010 for his direct democracy pamphlet "the plan". Little wonder these people now feel they have been sold a pig in a poke. The same applies to the flat taxers and the deregulators. Equally, the Eurosceptics were never going to be entirely satisfied with withdrawal from the EPP, but Cameron never really clarified what he would and wouldn't do in office, and so now they suspect he suckered them into a traditional Tory Majorist approach to Europe. All of these must see a pattern – warm words, followed by inaction, followed by contempt.
Carswell and his ilk were bound to be disappointed eventually, as the realities of government intruded. But as Cameron had never taken them on, he'd never defeated them. They can feel, with some justification, that Cameron is in Number Ten through their forbearance and support, and that he should repay in kind, with at lest a modicum of respect. Cameron clearly doesn't feel the same way, and thinks they should be happy with all he's doing. The trouble is, since Cameron can't ever claim to have defined what his agenda is in a way serrate to all these right-philosophical strands, nor defeated them in policy combat, nor won a general election, he is standing on some pretty slippery terrain. If he really thought they were rubbish ideas, or impractical, why didn't he never say so in opposition? If his current stance is so essential to ensuring a Conservative government is elected, why did he not pursue in opposition, only doing so when forced to by a lack of a majority.
They suspect that the policy position is defined by self interest, tactical priorities and love of power. They might not be wrong in that.
So the struggles in the modern Conservative party have deep roots.
In the next post, we shall look at how these roots were pulled to the surface by a combination of Tory internal politics and a entirely self-defeating and unnecessary search for positive publicity.