Hanging on by a thread
While Theresa May has just about survived the Conservative Party conference, worse challenges lie ahead, reckons Paul Demarty
Not if it breaks, but when ...
But the Lord thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed. And he shall deliver their kings into thine hand, and thou shalt destroy their name from under heaven: there shall no man be able to stand before thee, until thou have destroyed them.1
Things are approaching the point where we must ask, in all seriousness, whether Theresa May is cursed.
Tory conference was, of course, utterly torrid. There were a few policy announcements, many of which had the whiff of retreat about them. Some sort of return to the student grant system is suggested. Hands are wrung about the housing crisis. As expected by the more intelligent bourgeois commentators in the summer of 2015, a Corbyn-led Labour Party, now that it has been allowed two years to bed in, has dragged everything to the left, so that a humbled Tory front bench has at last caught up with Ed Miliband’s energy price cap.
Apart from that, there was an intrusive security-state expansion here; a shake of the magic money tree there. Chatter about the place was dominated, naturally, by Brexit, concerning which the government is in a pickle and uniquely unable to offer credible promises (to which we will return later). Conference seemed to be getting even greyer - those youths who turned up were either careerist apparatchiks or devotees of the extraordinary Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The chorus of whisperers - those ‘unnamed senior Tories’ of a million inches of newsprint - were united on one point: May needed to pull a good speech out of the bag. In truth, when ‘unnamed senior Tories’ say this sort of thing, it is not because they expect that their stated wishes will be unambiguously denied. Tory conference is not a decision-making body; it has always and only been a media showpiece. There is - or ought to be - very little that can go wrong, with the complement that an apparently ‘good speech’ is not necessarily enough to save you when the Tories’ well-honed survival instinct kicks in. (Iain Duncan Smith received 17 standing ovations in 2003, before catching 90 knives in his back a few short weeks later.)
Somehow, however, it all went horribly wrong. Much attention focused on the prankster who handed the PM a P45, and on the foul luck that had her descend into repeated coughing fits. But the most poetic part of the whole calamity was the way the letters kept falling off the display behind her, as if the stage-set itself was against her, or else trying to commit suicide out of shame at being a part of such a punishment. For it is that which tells us most about the Tory Party in its current predicament: not necessarily May’s leadership, but a Tory Party that would put up with May as a leader, given how utterly destroyed her authority is. This is the natural party of government, yet at the moment it cannot even decorate a podium in good order. The proverbial piss-up in a brewery seems wildly over-ambitious for this sorry crew.
May survives, for now. In part, that must be because none of the alternatives pass muster.
There are first of all the ‘unsackables’. Philip Hammond at the treasury is popular with City types, but despised by the Brexiteer hard core, who would be in open rebellion at every step, as he pursues a Brexit that ‘puts jobs first’ - which is to say, a Brexit that is not really Brexit. So he is out. What about Boris Johnson? Calling him unsackable may actually be slightly out of date, as TheSunday Times reports that he is to be demoted in the coming reshuffle. He certainly has brand recognition, and more charm than the rest of them put together; but the prospect of his floppy mop in Number 10 is a matter of some horror to those remaining Tories who are able to view their historic role as the British party of the state in anything other than absurdly fabulist terms. Hence the leaked video footage of him reciting Kipling in Myanmar, and a million other things - somebody is out to get him.
You cannot get more fabulist than Jacob Rees-Mogg, of course, whose idea of a barnstorming speech consists almost entirely of reciting famous battlefields - with the implication that the struggle against the Common Agricultural Policy is like them in kind, significance and heroic death toll. Rees-Mogg is a scion of the minor gentry, whose hyper-identification with the English aristocracy lies in some realm beyond camp. He claims to have become a Tory at the age of five, under the careful moral instruction of his nanny, Veronica Crook, who accompanied him on his first parliamentary campaign 20 years later. Add in his Catholic traditionalism, and you have a living fossil of a milieu thought to have been dealt its mortal wounds half a century ago, under the twin hammer-blows of the 1960s counterculture and Vatican II. Yet there he stands - Brideshead Reanimated - surrounded, bizarrely, by adoring young Tories (young, at least, by Tory standards).
It is difficult to know quite what to make of the Rees-Mogg phenomenon. It shows at the very least that there is a layer among the young Tory activists that might remind some MPs of their own university days and the beloved ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ badges, full of zeal and barely repressed hatred of the cliquey, Sloaney insiderdom of the central office apparatchiks (who equally skew young, albeit liberal and technocratic in wider outlook); people who want to show the Americans how a tea-drinking nation throws a Tea Party. The idea among them is to create a ‘grassroots movement like Momentum’ (leaving aside, for the moment, how laughable a description of Momentum that is) that will propel an anti-Corbyn into command of the Tories.
Whether Moggmentum will triumph or turn out to be a piece of cargo-cult idiocy remains to be seen - given the course of the last few years, it would be quite foolish to write it off too quickly. Certainly if the honourable member for North East Somerset were to make it onto the ballot in a contested leadership election, all bets are off - the Tory Party gets more rightwing, the closer to its genuine grassroots you get - and those are the people who get to vote on such things.
Downward is heavenward
That the question is even being asked is most bizarre - even those who comment on Rees-Mogg’s foibles (and Boris’s gaffes in remote climes ... ) seem somehow to underplay the thing. The fact that ‘moderate’ Tory voices pine so much for Ruth Davidson - someone who as a non-MP is literally ineligible for the post of prime minister - tells you how desperate things are in the Commons.
There is an awful lot at stake even in the most run-of-the-mill bourgeois statecraft and right now the United Kingdom is in an extremely delicate situation. It is a bad time to have a malfunctioning instrument of government, as the Conservative Party undoubtedly is. In an editorial urging May into a bold reshuffle, the Financial Times spells out exactly why a leadership contest would be a disaster:
[It] would suck the oxygen out of the Brexit negotiations, as a crucial EU summit approaches in mid-October. Once again, the Conservatives would be putting party before country. Once again, Britain would lose a prime minister over Europe. Worse, the Tories would risk opening the door to a Corbyn government.2
The Tory Party above all else likes to think of itself as pragmatic. This is not the same as being ‘moderate’ - it stands to the right, historically, of its apparent equivalents in the Christian Democratic parties of Europe - but rather consists in a ruthless application to the principles of statecraft: dignified where possible, efficient where necessary. There have always been swivel-eyed true believers at the base - all the better to get the vote out, and indeed physically intimidate potential voters for the Whigs or Labour at various times. That they, and their ‘men on horseback’ like Boris, are even in sight of the summit of the party is almost as extraordinary as an insurrectionary general strike would be if it broke out tomorrow lunchtime.
We have gotten here because the Tories have not so much dug themselves a hole, but rather dug themselves four levels of basement, like a Russian oligarch making the most of his Bishops Avenue mansion. One: they gave their party to David Cameron, whose attitude to politics is congenitally short-termist, and whose attempt at Blairite triangulation made a sleeping and vengeful enemy out of most of his party. Two: Cameron promised a referendum on the question of EU membership, not expecting to have to call it. Three: he lost it, upending the political balance and making his successor hostage to the Brexiteer head-bangers by way of a wafer-thin majority. Four: the aforementioned curse on Theresa May, presumably incurred while running through that field of wheat.
It has been the habit of mind of the left to call the Tories weak at every disadvantage, and our habit to restore some sense of historical perspective to such judgments. Now is clearly not the time for such an adjustment: the Brexit vote is in principle a manageable problem for a party like the Tories, but in their present state it is a dagger to the guts, and there is no way out that does not leave significant elements in extreme dissatisfaction; and, thanks to the magic electoral touch of Theresa May, any one of them has an effective veto over government policy.
The bottom line, especially given the intransigence of our erstwhile friends on the continent, is that the notorious cliff-edge Brexit is now a very likely outcome, being as it is the default option if the Tories cannot quit bickering for long enough to (in reality) grovel their way into a transition deal, or else be replaced with a Labour government sufficiently pliant to take clear and direct orders from the City to do the same. Frankly, we do not rate their chances on either count - so the British masses had better fasten their seatbelts.
1. Deuteronomy 7:23-24.
2. Financial Times October 7.