Still no way out
Paul Demarty watches the fur fly at the Birmingham conference
Whither the Conservative Party? After Theresa May’s ‘Dancing queen’ performance at Birmingham, Britain’s ‘natural party of government’ is looking less the part than it has at any conference since the brief, abortive leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.
At that time, of course, there was the small problem that the media had swung behind Tony Blair’s New Labour, and was not to start swinging back for another few years. No such problem this time, seeing as how the Labour Party is led by a man who may as well be Errico Malatesta as far as the media are concerned.
Yet no media organisation, surely, is silver-tongued enough to put a positive spin on what happened in Birmingham. The Tories are at war - the bad kind of war, for an organisation of their sort, which is open civil war. The battle lines are well-carved, at this point. Jacob Rees-Mogg - who presumably had some kind of operation to remove his self-doubt in his youth - welcomed delegates to conference at a packed fringe meeting, where he seemed unable to decide whether the prime minister was a dead or merely dying duck. Either way, she could not be expected to fly through a thunderstorm. Or something. Rees-Mogg’s rhetoric ever reaches further than pettifogging matters such as logic can permit.
Theresa May can probably survive such rhetoric. More serious problems, however, come from the blonder quarters of the Brexit faithful. Boris Johnson has been nothing if not busy in the run-up to this year’s conference. Calculated ‘scandals’ - over the burka with respect to street furniture, of the Chequers deal with respect to suicide bombing - led into another 4,000 word broadside published in The Daily Telegraph and on Facebook on September 27, and then - on the very eve of conference - an interview in The Sunday Times, where, between endless attempts to appear perfectly reasonable, he managed to describe the PM’s plan for Brexit negotiations as “preposterous” and “deranged”.
Team May replied in force - in the person of ‘Spreadsheet’ Phil Hammond, who abandoned his usual impeccably bureaucratic style to point out that Johnson’s scheme, now called ‘Canada plus’ or ‘super Canada’ in the lexicon of Brexit fantasy football, was absurd in its own terms. The Europeans had already rejected it - indeed, it was precisely “fantasy world” stuff. “We can spend our time sitting at a table, banging it and demanding something that our negotiating partners have clearly told us is not on offer,” Hammond told the Daily Mail on October 1, “or we can try to find a way through.”
With the stage duly set, Team May and Team Boris spent the conference ducking it out. Headline speeches and policy flotations on October 2 were to be followed by Johnson’s packed out ‘chuck Chequers’ fringe. On the other-than-Brexit front, Johnson accused the front bench of trying to “steal Corbyn’s clothes”, embarking on a great crusade against ‘socialism’ - by which he presumably means the few fig leaves on offer from John McDonnell. He wants the high-speed rail link, HS2, canned (we note that fellow blonde Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom has picked up the call as well), which is a nice thing to go after the government over, since it is scarcely possible that there is any appetite for disentangling from it with so much else going on, but equally the whole thing really is an indefensible boondoggle - a recipe for embarrassment, in other words.
The real difficulty, however, is Brexit. And the truth is that both sides are paralysed. Hammond mocks Johnson’s intransigence, and failure to realise the impossibility of his demands. Yet the uncomfortable fact remains that the Chequers deal has also been sent packing by the European negotiators; so May and Hammond are hardly on solid ground either. Hammond offered a pious hope that, in spite of differences of opinion on Brexit, the Tories would remember how much unites them. Alas, they are united on, among other things, their insistence on indulging in fantasy, when it comes to negotiations with the Europeans.
Thus The Times reports that the government is prepared to make concessions that would in practice rule out separate trade deals for several years in order to break the deadlock - a leak that fired up the Brexit true believers into a real frenzy.
Out of the hole
The Tories are in a mess of their own making - in large part, anyway. The party lobbed a grenade into British politics, in the form of David Cameron’s cunning plan to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union. Under Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, it contrived to call an election that was its to lose … yet managed to lose it (or at least fail to win it) anyway.
It would be unfair to blame them entirely. We live in turbulent times, and ‘natural parties of government’ are feeling the pinch. The putatively unelectable Jeremy Corbyn proved electable enough to enormously increase Labour’s share of the vote, if not to win outright. These two facts are themselves hardly unrelated. May went for two election strategies at once. In one version, she would steal Labour’s clothes, and set up the Tories as the party of British workers, on a chauvinist basis, with a few crumbs tossed out and an end to overt austerity rhetoric. Hammond - ironically, given the current situation - was to be ditched; a new age of red Toryism inaugurated. In the other, she was to represent the opposite - the safe pair of hands, the last bulwark against a Corbyn-Scots nationalist “coalition of chaos”. The former was associated with Nick Timothy, May’s then chief of staff; the latter with Lynton Crosby, the Australian electioneering ‘genius’ who has achieved nothing but laughable failures these last few years.
No politician on earth could have made a good go of that, and May did not. The ‘safe pair of hands’ approach demands a rigorous effort to stick to the script; the mould-breaking red Tory demands visionary excess. The wide perception of May as ‘robotic’ on the campaign trail is in the end a result of this cognitive dissonance.
Humiliation is not a good look for a Tory prime minister, so it is May’s very survival that is remarkable. It seems that, apart from Rees-Mogg - who is quite happy to hurl himself off the cliff edge and flap his arms - and the inveterate gambler, Johnson, the Tories have been shaken from their appetite for risk. Upending May, as she and her allies tirelessly remind us, is an invitation to further chaos.
The least worst of all options, however, is hardly going to stop people from grumbling. Johnson’s complaint about creeping ‘socialism’ in the cabinet is - as he might put it - preposterous, but not stupid politics. The fact that May and her allies keep returning to some version of ‘proletarian Toryism’ - that the revenant shade of May’s former advisor, Nick Timothy, still lurks in No10 - is a matter of concern for those who were overjoyed at the total victory of neoliberalism after Thatcher. Not a few such types were horrified by Corbyn’s election in 2015, precisely because it would drag politics as a whole to the left - on economic issues at any rate. The Tories have spent the last 40 years combining visceral pro-capitalism with national chauvinism; now they try, sometimes, to swerve back into ‘one-nation’ welfarism. The bourgeoisie fears a new wave of banker-bashing and populist demagogy, and thus wails hysterically about the Tories becoming ‘anti-business’. By singing the same tune, Johnson seizes the opportunity.
On the plus side for May, she has new friends. In particular, Geordie Greig’s new regime at the Daily Mail has reined that paper in from its hard-Brexiteer crusading. Its line is basically loyal to No10. It ran Hammond’s anti-Boris hit piece, and - when every other paper led with the blonde one’s threatening presence on October 2 - the Mail gave an adulatory write-up of the government’s plans for the post-EU immigration regime (given how much this depends on the terms of Brexit, we can only assume this credulous front page is deliberately so).
Between this and the fact that Tory conferences decide nothing and are not typically the occasion for defenestration (even IDS was spared until a week or two after the 2003 jamboree), we surmise that May is not in any immediate danger. Johnson must also know that; his objective is to signal to the whole world that he is ready to step up and ‘do his duty for the country’, as and when. The trouble for her is ‘events, dear girl, events’: whether or not the particular plan laid out by The Times is a goer, there will be compromises and failures, and hysterical comparisons on the far-right Tory benches; in this tinderbox atmosphere, a government could fall very quickly.