The Tea Party is a liability for the Republicans

This war for the GOP’s soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins.

Jon Stainbrook doesn't try to keep the excitement out of his voice. "In 2006, in 2008, if you had an R by your name, you were gonna lose," he says. "Now if there's an R by your name you win." In next week's midterm elections, he says, the Republicans are "gonna win and gonna win big. It'll be the biggest victory we've had in years."

All this, understandably, has Stainbrook rather excited. He's chair of the Republican Party in Lucas County, Ohio, one of the most solidly Democratic areas in the Midwest. But Ohio as a whole is a depressed, post-industrial wasteland that tends to be a bellwether come election time: as goes Ohio, so goes America. And this year, the state looks set to pick a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a swath of Republic congressman.

"I never thought that people would turn on Obama this quickly," says Stainbrook, with undisguised glee.

Yet if there's a downside for the Republicans, it is contained within the very movement that has done so much to energise its voter base this year. The Tea Party has been festooned with media coverage and had a number of notable victories in helping right-wing Republicans beat more moderate candidates in the party's primaries last summer. More importantly, for the first time in half a decade, it has got the party's conservative base excited about being conservative again.

But while the Tea Party may have helped the Republicans out this year, there are reasons to think it could be a liability in future elections.

Stream of anger

Problem number one is that the Tea Partiers are, not to put too fine a point on it, nuts. Horror stories about the movement's preferred candidates abound. Christine O'Donnell, the conservative running for the Delaware Senate seat, won unflattering headlines when she flatly denied that the US constitution had anything to say about the separation of church and state.

The activists are no better. Gloria Johnson, chair of the Democratic Party in Knox County, Tennessee, says her local Tea Partiers "couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag". Those turning up to a meeting in her district found that the parking garage was closed. "They couldn't face the idea of on-street parking. So they cancelled the meeting."

This is not the stuff that revolutions are made of.

A bigger problem with the Tea Party, though, is that, by picking hard-right candidates, it may be making the Republican Party less attractive to mainstream voters. Many Tea Partiers think they represent a stream of anger that runs through the entire US population. Actually, polls have found that – surprise, surprise – they are far more conservative than most of their countrymen.

This means that the Tea Party's preferred candidates may be less palatable to the electorate than the moderates they've pushed out. (In what is shaping up to be a great year for the Republicans, O'Donnell looks all but certain to lose her race.)

John Martin, a moderate conservative activist who in 2008 led the "Republicans for Obama" campaign, says unequivocally that the Tea Party will be bad for his party. "A lot of people who are running as independents today were Republicans three years ago," he points out.

Other polls have found that the Tea Party is doing more to fire up horrified Democrats than it is to build Republican support.

Grow, grow, grow your own

There is one more problem with the Tea Partiers: and that is, they don't think much of the Republican Party, either. Many see the party establishment as a bunch of just the kind of elitist career politicians they've set out to destroy. Democratic activists are full of glee that their party looks much more unified in presumed defeat than the Republicans are looking in victory.

This war for the party's soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins. A big Republican victory this year could lead to overconfidence, making it harder for the party to move back to the centre ground where presidential elections are won. And it could make the Republicans more likely to pick someone unelectably right-wing to run against Barack Obama in 2012.

Some activists, you sense, are aware of this problem. Stainbrook is oddly contradictory in his attitude towards the Tea Party.

He is effusive, describing it as "a wonderful, beautiful thing". "I love it," he says. "Why would we not want to nurture and grow something that's ours?" But he cheerfully admits that the Tea Partiers aren't going to stop their attacks on moderate Republicans for the sake of party unity.

And in the same breath with which he heaps praise on the movement, he concedes that it might dent his party's electoral prospects. "There is always the danger," Stainbrook says, "that if in the primary you pick an ultra-conservative then you've got a candidate that's not as palatable to the general public.

"But that's the thing," he adds quickly. "They don't want a moderate any more."

Perhaps the party doesn't. But it might just turn out that the voters do.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.