Category Archives: Conservative Party

Thatcher’s Return


The Tories are in a better position than the Labour party as they will undoubtedly quickly unite behind a new leader come September.  The question is, who will that leader be and what does it mean for British politics?  At a time when the Labour party is incapable of providing any clear opposition and the Liberal Democrats remain an irrelevance, the choice of Tory leader is crucial for the country. Sadly, the country doesn't choose.  A few thousand Tory activists do.

Forget the MP tallies in the parliamentary vote for the moment.  That they will put Theresa May through with a substantial - even overwhelming - majority supporting her seems likely (at the moment - though the last week has emphasised the unpredictable nature of politics).  Andrea Leadsom looks well set to be her competitor in the run-off amongst party activists.

And here's the thing.  Leadsom may be relatively new to the party, while May has racked up immense service in the voluntary party even before she went into parliament.  But if you have a look at the way the wind is blowing the activists think they could have found their new Thatcher, and it's not the estimable Mrs. May.

The Conservative Home site remains a useful - though admittedly not infallible - bell-weather inidcator of Tory grassroots opinion.  While the focus of the media commentariat is still on the vote amongst Tory MPs, the key vote, the activist vote, is being monitored by Conservative Home.  It shows a serious movement in Andrea Leadsom's favour, as she edges past Theresa May.

A previous poll from the ConHome panel showed Michael Gove as the firm favourite a mere few weeks ago, and even after his dire week he is still holding up well in third place.  The message for the May faction, however, is that they are nowhere near victory in this race.  While she may seem to the non-Conservative onlooker to embody many of the characteristics of a classic Tory leader - strong on national security and law and order, fiscally sound, compassionate but only to a degree, socially pretty conservative in most areas - she has a serious weakness as far as the grassroots vote is concerned.  Two, actually.

The most serious is that, for all her strengths of character and her low profile in the EU campaign, she is a Remainer.  Yes, she has announced that Brexit is it, Brexit is the way.  But the Tory grassroots were implacably for Brexit over many years.  Their euro-scepticism stymied the frequent attempts of the Tories' most popular national politician, Ken Clarke, to become leader.  Their implicit support for the regular bouts of euro-sceptic rebellion undermined John Major and gave rise to David Cameron's catastrophic referendum decision.  They are socially very conservative and tend to a more isolationist global outlook.  And they want someone who reflects their image.  By endorsing the EU, Theresa May has significantly distorted that comforting reflection.

Second, no matter how quietly (again), Theresa May did support gay marriage.  In the metropolitan, EU supporting part of Britain that is a good thing.  In the Conservative Party, it is a cause of real suspicion.  Before the referendum, nothing alienated David Cameron more from his own party members than his promotion of gay marriage, and it remains significant that he chooses that as one of his signature achievements.

If Theresa May had been facing off a candidate with similar socially liberal tendencies this might not have mattered.  Her support for the EU would still be a stumbling block, but against a Johnson or a Gove there is a chance that her steadier personality and the perception that she is a tough defender of British interests might still have pulled her through.

But May won't be against either of those men.  She will be against a woman who reminds the Tory electorate more than she does herself of their most potent icon.  Margaret Thatcher.

Leadsom is a grassroots member's dream.  They love the fact that she has been "in finance" for over 25 years since nothing screeches success to Tory members more than the ability to make a killing over a long period in the financial markets.  They fully embrace her euro-scepticism, and as the key male leaders of that campaign fall like dominoes, Leadsom's own over-rated role becomes ever more important.  She was a true believer when it still looked like a lost cause.  And she opposed gay marriage.  She will face hostile questioning from a metropolitan media about that, and all the people on social media who aren't members of the Tory party may excoriate her for it, but it is a significant point of unspoken attraction for Tory members.  If homosexual attraction used to be the love that dare not speak its name, genuine hostility towards gay people is the attitude that dare not speak its name within the Tory party.

I would rate Leadsom's chances, over a summer campaign, of gaining a majority of the small Tory grassroots vote as being much better than average.  This race may look like May's to lose, but her star rose only recently, benefitted from Westminster shenanigans, and could dip again as the brighter meteorite of a more clearly Thatcherite lady takes centre stage.

Forget Westminster.  Like the referendum before it, this race is decided amongst ordinary people who have never been plugged in to the Westminster conversation.




Gove’s Star Ever Rising



If Boris Johnson has had a pretty mediocre - even poor - Brexit campaign, then the quiet man of the Leave team has had a great one.

Johnson remains popular with Tory grassroots and amongst the general public, who persist - contrary to all the evidence - in seeing him as the most trustworthy politician when it comes to speaking about the EU.

Gove, however, has severed his links with Cameron and the party modernisers, carved out a new furrow and become the Leave campaign's most potent debater.  While Leave supporters were collectively swooning over the great man's performance in the Question Timed debate yesterday - possibly because they've rarely heard one of their own side string words together with fluency and meaning, even if the substance was still being held at the door - even commentators who are not amongst Mr. Gove's natural support base were conceding that he'd done a good job.  Three of the Guardian's writers were inspired by Mr. Gove to produce delightfully crafted assessments.

Michael Gove has also seen a surge of support from grassroots Tories who would like him to be their leader.  The Conservative Home survey in June showed that he remained the firm favourite.  Discount his repeated protestations that he isn't fit to be leader - given sufficient support and a few nudges from senior colleagues and I'm sure Mr. Gove will overcome his reluctance to stand - and the former friend of Dave may be the man charged with negotiating our departure from the EU as Prime Minister.

It's possibly at that point that he might wish he had been a little more thorough on the detail of life after the EU.

The One Nation PM

David Cameron announced that he would be a "One Nation" prime minister, and in both outlook and practice he would appear to be fulfilling the role he has set out for himself.

Although he has indeed appointed a more Thatcherite cabinet than his predecessors, this has largely been through the pragmatic necessity of getting the right people into the right jobs.  The Cameron style of governance in any case favours continuity - a significant and, many would argue, welcome distinction from the almost constantly moving BLair/Brown years - and this obviously saw a number of committed Thatcherites retain Cabinet office (Gove, Grayling, Javid, Hammond to name a few).  They were joined by rising stars such as Priti Patel (attending, rather than a full-on member of cabinet) and Andrea Leadsom, while Thatcherite old-stager John Whittingdale got his place in the sun, not least because he happens to be the best-qualified person to hold his role.  The cabinet selection, in fact, was a triumph of pragmatism over ideology, with the arch-strategist George Osborne increasing his own authority as part of the harmonious duopoly that he and David Cameron seem able to run.

The Queen's Speech, too, carried some right-wing headlining.  The promise on a European referendum, the proposed welfare cuts and the right to buy bill; all these could have come straight out of the Thatcher playbook.  But they were all also manifesto pledges.  The European referendum is Cameron's attempt to lance the boil in his own party and give membership of the EU a genuinely popular mandate.  Putting it straight in to his first Queen's Speech was a matter of necessary management.  The other headlining issues reflected promises made during the campaign.

Look, however, at what wasn't there.  No British Bill of Rights yet, nor a vote to repeal the fox-hunting ban.  And under the wire, look at what else is happening.  Childcare allowances to be doubled, apprenticeships to be increased, and of course Cameron's own well publicised commitment to actually extend NHS provision in a 24/7 direction.  There is definitely an issue of costing of these expensive commitments to be identified, but they form part of a One Nation commitment to social mobility and "caring for the poor" that is certainly redolent of One Nation PMs of old, as Anne McElvoy persuasively notes in her Observer piece.

It's not just in policy commitments that David Cameron appears to be showing his One Nation colours.  His practice too reminds us of the methods of government of the most prominent of his One Nation predecessors.

The originator of the One Nation brand (though he would hardly have used that term) was of course Disraeli.  But Disraeli reached the top office at a point when he was almost too tired to pursue any active measures himself.   He left the radical reforming to his ministers, most notably his Home Secretary Richard Cross who has as much claim as anyone to be the original executor of One Nation Toryism.  Cameron is certainly not a tired man in office, but like Disraeli it is possible that foreign affairs (in his case the necessary negotiations over EU membership) will consume more of his time.  Thus, the practical measures required to put his vision onto the statute books will lie in the hands of his ministers.  That's why Iain Duncan Smith stays at Work and Pensions, and Jeremy Hunt at Health.

Mr. Cameron also understands the art of steady rule.  The Spectator blog suggests that the greatest reforms of the Cameron administration come from his ministers.  True, but it is the PM who must both give the political freedom to pursue this, and the steady leadership to stop it being overly divisive. This is a classic Stanley Baldwin approach, another notable One Nation leader.  Baldwin presided comfortably over a potentially divisive inter-war Britain, ensuring Labour had its chance to govern, making sure that the General Strike didn't become a class war, and giving radical reformers such as Neville Chamberlain their head.

The most potentially divisive issue facing Mr. Cameron is the European Convention on Human Rights. He has apparently decided that Britain will not in fact pull out from this, believing that the production of a British Bill of Rights should satisfy most of the calls for a greater prominence of British rulings in such issues.  The Telegraph reports that this has put him at odds with Michael Gove and Theresa May, but the fact is that this is Cameron the arbiter in action.

David Cameron clearly does not see power as something to hold on to for its own sake, and has a refreshingly detached view of holding office - hence his off the cuff comment to James Lansdale of the BBC about not running for a third term.  He is a leader who sets the agenda, and understands that very often he has to find en effective middle way between the competing ideologies of colleagues and party supporters, as well as position the Tories as an effective whole nation party once again.  The early indications are that he has the temperament and commitment to achieve this.  Any One Nation Conservative should be cheering him on enthusiastically as he re-sets the party for a generation or more.  

A One Nation PM and his Thatcherite Cabinet

David Cameron gave a dignified and well considered speech on hearing of his final victory in the election. Able to lead with a Conservative majority, he described himself as a "One Nation" prime minister, making a clear pitch to position himself in the centre of British politics.  He at least, it seemed, was not taking the erroneous lesson from the election that Britain is a naturally right-wing country.  Instead, he was making a valiant attempt to reclaim the most potent Tory brand in electoral politics.  His cabinet appointments, however, have rather belied his own personal branding, for David Cameron has, on the surface of it, appointed one of the most right-wing Conservative Cabinets ever.  Not even Margaret Thatcher could boast such a Thatcherite cabinet.

Take the early appointments.  Michael Gove at Justice, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Defence's Michael Fallon - all have articulated routinely Thatcherite positions.  Hammond, who favours leaving the EU, is probably the most euro-sceptic of modern Tory foreign secretaries.  Gove is a Thatcherite radical par excellence, delighting in challenging and doing battle with public sector institutions and relishing confrontation over emollience.  Michael Fallon cut his teeth as a Thatcherite junior minister in earlier administrations.  Iain Duncan Smith has been a radical and right-wing reformer of welfare for the past five years, and won the Conservative leadership as a definably Thatcherite candidate who had led backbench rebellions over Europe.

Then we have Chris Grayling.  He may not be running a department any more, but his post as Leader of the Commons owes much to his right-wing credentials and the belief that he is well placed to act as a conduit between the all important right-wing and activist backbench MPs and the government.

Theresa May was once the party chairman who described the Tories as "the nasty party" (or at any rate accurately saw that that was the widely held perception), but she has also been a vigorous Home Secretary taking on the vested interests of the police and pursuing an approach that would have set well in Thatcher's governments - better than the late PMs own largely centrist Home Secretaries.

And then consider the newcomers.  John Whittingdale, whose only previous government role has been as private secretary to Mrs Thatcher herself, and who can be counted the most "BBC sceptic" Culture Secretary to hold the post.  Right-wingers who believe in the virtues of free market foreign ownership - especially Rupert Murdoch's - over home-funded media will be delighting in Mr. Whittingdale's appointment.  Sajid Javid at Business and Priti Patel, who attends cabinet, are also among the more Thatcherite of the Tory Party's MPs, hence their frequent trumpeting by conservative commentators.  (And able as they are, I do wish we could stop hearing about their parents' struggles as if somehow they were the experience of the children).

In contrast, there are no cheerleaders for One Nation Conservatism in the cabinet.  Moderate ministers such as Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd mark a more emollient conservatism than most of their cabinet colleagues, but that in itself hardly stands as a vigorous and articulate proposition for One Nation Conservatism.

Finally, where stands the most important member of the cabinet after Cameron himself?  George Osborne is a strategist of skill, and has been a largely canny Chancellor in his pursuit of austerity, but just enough.  His actual political view is difficult to define.  He's no One Nationer, but he is also no clearly fixed Thatcherite either.  Like his friend the Prime Minister, he is an arch pragmatist, seeking office for a party which prides competence over ideology - a very traditional Conservative approach.

So how seriously should we take Mr. Cameron's One Nation protestations?  To some extent, his Thatcherite cabinet has a degree of inevitability about it.  His new appointments have been made with competence and effectiveness as much in mind as any desire to appeal to a noisy right-wing backbench dominance.  Javid and Patel not only represent a welcome diversity, but more importantly have reached their posts on the basis of their obvious ability and - particularly in Ms Patel's case - appeal as people who can speak human.  Whittingdale has more experience of dealing with and inspecting issues relating to culture, media and sport than any other MP.  To bring his experience into cabinet was a fine move.  Fallon and Hammond are intelligent men who have only been in their offices for a year or so and have been making clear marks in running them - keeping them in place was redolent of Cameron's praise-worthy desire for government to have continuity of ability and experience.

Mr. Cameron's Thatcherite cabinet thus reflects the reality of modern Tory politics.  The Lady's legacy was a whole generation of activists who shared her ideology and who have now matured into the upper ranks of government.  It's not so much that David Cameron wouldn't want to appoint One Nation ministers.  It's just that Ken Clarke's departure marked the end of that particular beast.  If the Prime Minister really is a One Nation Conservative, then we will see the consequences of that in another decade or two.  Just as Thatcher governed with plenty of Tory lefties but still imposed her signature on it, so Mr. Cameron may be able to do so in reverse, whilst still utilising the abilities of a pretty first-rank cabinet.  The Tories, though they don't know it yet, may be in for another gradual transition.









When Toryism moves right….

Lynton Crosby's general campaign advice for the right-wing politicians he expensively manages generally seems to be to tack right, and then right again, until you've out-manouevred anyone else who might be coming from that direction.  It seemed to work in Australia for John Howard.  It didn't work for Michael Howard in Britain in 2005.  And the jury is obviously out on its impact on David Cameron's campaign in 2015.

Mind you, there used to be a time when the Conservative Party didn't see tacking right as a useful or honourable tactic.  This was a party that held a variety of centre-right views together - including, yes, some of the 'ultras' - but believed firmly in its national position as a "One Nation" party, needing to look beyond its own borders for support and affirmation.  It was a party that understood the welfare state, tapped in to the aspirations of lower income earners whilst maintaining their safety net, and vigorously challenged any onset of incipient racism that might come up, especially under the guise of "immigration reform". To his credit, one of Michael Howard's finest blasts came in his searing attack on the BNP.  It was always a great shame that this fundamentally decent man allowed his campaign to be defined by posters of the inflammatory nature as the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" kind.  If you want an inkling of what this Tory Party used to sound like, give Michael Heseltine's piece in today's Mail a read.  It is a full and wholesome put-down of Nigel Farage's race-meddling and brooks no thought of dealing with such a man, likening him to a less intelligent version of Enoch Powell, another politician at ease with the far right.

The vigour of the Heseltine attack on Mr Farage is all the more satisfying for the weak-minded, feeble appraoch shown by the Conservative Party's actual leader, David Cameron.  He seems to have embraced the Crosby mantra of not annoying UKIP supporters, and as such has successfully conveyed - yet again - an image of flaccid, unprincipled, short-termist leadership.

If you want a sharp and unforgiving assessment of the Cameron mode of leadership, read Nick Cohen in the Observer.  I know Cohen is no conservative, but he is a clear-headed commentator on politics who gives no quarter in his honest assessments of both right and left.  His condemnations of Cameron are given greater force because they ring so true.  He compares his approach to that of Angela Merkel, who denounced the anti-Muslim protestors in Dresden in no uncertain terms as having "prejudice, hatred and coldness in their hearts".  Try listening for anything even remotely similar from Cameron about UKIP and you'll end up getting your ears tested.

Cohen also - rightly - mocks the Tory choice of candidate to challenge Nigel Farage in South Thanet as an attempt to simply provide Faragism without Farage.  Might as well have thrown in their lot with Farage from the word go.

If the modern Tory Party really can't attack a man who openly plays with racist ideas, no matter how cunningly phrased, then it does need to start asking why it is even in business.  Time used to be that we knew what broad-mindedness differentiated the Tory Party from fringe right-wing groups.  It looks as if that time is no more, and the UK is the loser.