Tories: Return of the repressed
For the first time, this coalition government looks structurally unsound - but its collapse would shift politics to the right, argues Paul Demarty
It is futile to make predictions in this game, but equally hard to resist. So let me suggest that there is a possibility - still small, but real - that one day, historians will look back on May 14 2013 as the day that David Cameron truly cooked his own goose.
Amid fratricidal chaos in the Conservative Party ranks, Cameron faced the embarrassment of over 100 of his own MPs voting for an amendment to their own government’s queen’s speech - the queen’s speech! - leaving Cameron reliant not only on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but Labour as well, to get his basic programme for government through. More ageing Thatcherites crawled out of the woodwork every day to lambaste the PM. The media had started to whisper the words no Tory leader ever wants to hear - “John Major”.
And how did Cameron describe his mood in this situation? “Profoundly relaxed.”1 Clearly he was aiming for the Rudyard Kipling school of steely determination: “If you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...” The trouble is that nobody believes it for a second. It might wash if it looked like Cameron has an exit strategy from this bloodbath. Perhaps he does. But his government currently betrays no indication of keeping its head. Cameron’s relaxation runs the risk of being remembered in the same mocking register as Norman Lamont, singing in his bath.
The Tories can be a fractious bunch, but only one issue has a big enough payload to cause a calamity of this kind. That issue is Europe. Cameron tried so very, very hard to project an image of a very modern Conservatism - an outward-looking, inclusive rightism that included support for gay marriage, the other issue to bedevil the Tory front benches this week, along with other right-on stances on the environment. Yet the hard-right contingent on the Tory back benches will only take so much. Consequently, Cameron has come to grief on the European question, and ended up desperately fighting the same fire that immolated John Major.
He probably thought he was playing a pretty smart game on this too. He clearly intended to use the EU as a way to placate those of his MPs and supporters nonplussed, or even horrified, by the creeping liberalism on the Tory front benches. Eighty percent of the population, by some counts, are “profoundly relaxed” about gay marriage, but the other 20% are true-blue Tory voters and activists, who can cause Cameron pain come polling day. Moreover, the rise of UK Independence Party added to the pressures on Cameron. The Eastleigh by-election in February saw Ukip gain nearly 28% of the vote.
Hence early this year, Cameron announced his support plans for an in-out referendum on European Union membership, to take place midway through the next parliament, after the PM has had a chance to ‘renegotiate’ Britain’s position in the union. This seemed like a good short-term ploy - it would neutralise the Europe issue, by promising the Tory right the one thing it desired above all others. The latter had already waited nigh on 40 years for a chance to cast their votes against EU membership; they could keep their powder dry until 2017, surely?
Not so. Ukip left Cameron’s smart calculation in tatters after its strong showing in the May 2 local elections, polling a quarter of the vote where it stood. Yes, it was a mid-term local election, traditionally a way to make the government into a punching bag. Yes, it was in part a protest vote. Yet the stark fact remains that, at present, the Tories are haemorrhaging votes to Nigel Farage and his party. It is hardly a tall order for Eurosceptic Tories to argue that the EU is the big problem here.
Since then, Cameron’s right wing has been on the warpath. The ghosts of Thatcherism’s past - Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, Michael Portillo and others - have trooped out to stick the Eurosceptic knife in. A backbench rebellion sought to amend the aforementioned queen’s speech to include the referendum - now was not the time, apparently, to be brushing it under the carpet.
Cameron’s cabinet was hardly solidly behind him. Defence minister Philip Hammond has indicated he would vote ‘out’ in an EU referendum. More cryptically, education minister Michael Gove told the BBC that, were such a referendum held tomorrow, he would vote to leave - but the best result would be a forthright ‘renegotiation’.
Equally, however, pro-Europe Tories have expressed their exasperation at the total lack of leadership on display. Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher’s longest serving cabinet minister and the man whose resignation supposedly triggered her fall from power, contributed a stinging op-ed to The Observer, saying that the idea that Britain might want to leave the EU was simply incomprehensible to right-thinking people from Washington to Tokyo, and that “the debate on Europe within the Conservative Party [has reached] a new, almost farcical, low”.2
Gove’s statement is exemplary of the present tactical confusion on the government’s part. Were there not this maelstrom around Number 10, it would be a canny move - a signal to the Eurosceptic right that they have friends in high places, who will not allow Cameron to return from Brussels and Berlin with a few empty sops; and a signal to the Europeans that Tory support for continued membership is far from unconditional, so they had better put something meaningful on the table. In this context, however, it merely makes the Tories look divided at the very top level - especially as there are long-running media campaigns to set Gove against Cameron anyway.
Further fuel has been thrown onto the fire, after an unknown individual “close to the prime minister” found a moment, apparently in a state of advanced refreshment, to refer to rank-and-file Tory activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. Andrew Feldman, chairman of the Conservative Party, has been fingered for the crime, but vigorously denies it.
The damage, in any case, is done. If Feldman is innocent, then he will still be presumed guilty among the loons - his face fits the picture too closely. He is widely considered to have gotten his post as party chair thanks to his chumminess with Cameron. He is part of the clique with which the Tory rank and file are so disaffected - it is simply too plausible that he would hold such a view.
This provided David Mellor, whose time in front-line politics was curtailed in the old-fashioned Tory manner by a thoroughly amusing sex scandal, with a platform for the quote of the week. “I am old enough to remember the days when the Tory Party chairman was a serious political figure and chosen because they were a serious political figure ... If it was him - as newspapers suggest - then this has been a disaster waiting to happen because you cannot elevate tennis-playing friends to be chairman of the Conservative Party without there being a political price to pay.”3
Indeed, you cannot - but whatever drunk Cameron crony let loose with the insult, it is equally an uncomfortable truth. Let us be frank - there is a reason Ukip took six votes from the Tories to every one from Labour. It is because the rank and file of the Conservative Party is overwhelmingly to the right of the leadership clique.
The hard core of the Conservative associations will have cheered when Tebbit argued that legalising gay marriage would allow him to marry his own son to avoid inheritance tax, and raise the terrifying possibility of a lesbian queen with an artificially inseminated heir to the throne. They will collect among them all manner of irrational terrors of the EU. Inasmuch as the Tory Party still contains those who consider Enoch Powell to be a misunderstood prophet (and it does), such people will be far better represented in the associations than ‘modern’, ‘moderate’ Cameron-type Tories.
Rightwing Tory foot soldiers feel increasingly bitter and disaffected with their party. They feel it has been hijacked by a liberal, metropolitan elite who are completely out of touch with voters’ (ie, their) concerns. As such, the great beneficiary of all this hoo-ha is undoubtedly Nigel Farage, who will stand up for ‘traditional British values’ dear to the hearts of the swivel-eyed loons - national chauvinism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious bigotry and the rest. Nobody can argue that he is not doing a convincing job of it these days.
Signs of weakness
On the whole, there have been rough times for this government - the Lib Dems’ U-turn on tuition fees, the Murdoch scandal, even ‘Pastygate’. Never has it appeared so weak as it does now, primarily because for two weeks the core Conservative leadership has not once looked like regaining control in good order. The Tory press, never fond of Cameron, has spotted an opportunity to put the boot in with serious vigour.
Sections of the left - not least the Socialist Workers Party, though it ultimately went quiet on this point - have always been fond of arguing that this was a weak government, which could be blown away with a big enough wave of protests. This has turned out to be nonsense; and in particular, it was nonsense to imagine that the Lib Dems were the weak link in the chain. Cameron has always looked to be under greater threat from his right.
A more dangerous illusion suggests itself now, however - the moment we have all been waiting for might finally be here! This government might be fatally compromised (the odds, I stress, are still against it). But if it falls now, it will not be our side, but a motley crew of Eurosceptic chauvinists, homophobes and - yes - swivel-eyed loons who have delivered the death-blow. This political trend includes all of Ukip and the vast majority, in membership terms, of the Conservative Party. The result will be a wild shift to the right in British politics, not a gilded opportunity for the left.
The ruling class, it is quite obvious, has no clue how to get out of this crisis; the rise of Ukip and the resurgence of the Tory hard right ought to remind us that it is perfectly capable of making things worse.
2. The Observer May 20.