The Tory left is in crisis - but no one in the party cares

Where are the successors to one nation giants like Michael Heseltine, George Young and Chris Patten?

As George Osborne announced huge cuts to benefits for the mentally ill and the disabled, Andrew Mitchell clung embarrassingly to power before resigning, and Iain Duncan Smith courted controversy with proposals to slash benefits for families of more than two children, we witnessed the Conservative Party unleash its pre-general election rallying cries. And yet, as party direction sharpened, giants of the Tory "one nation" tradition rose to remind us of an alternative Conservative vision. George Young arrived honourably back into cabinet, while Chris Patten brushed Maria Miller’s criticism of the BBC aside as ably as he once swept voters into his party’s fold. This week, Michael Heseltine went so far as to suggest that there is economic and civic potential in the regions and that it should be backed by a decentralised state entrepreneurialism. Are we witnessing a renewal of the Tory left or its last hurrah?

George Young, for example, was once Conservative minister for inner cities and, for 23 years, the MP for the ethnically diverse urban seat of Ealing Acton. He once served in the cabinet of Lambeth Council.  A Heseltine ally, in government he had a powerful sense of the need for policy to address poverty as much as unleash economic growth. His generation of Tories was as familiar with the great conurbations of our country as the modern Conservative Party has become unfamiliar with them. Indeed, among this cohort of parliamentarians was Virginia Bottomley who, as a qualified social worker, is the last Conservative frontbencher to have had a professional career in the caring or voluntary sectors. A Conservative government with social workers on its frontbench now seems utterly alien from the occasional summertime volunteering that passes as "a commitment to social action" for the party’s present parliamentary selection process. Like Young, Heseltine and Patten, Bottomley is a supporter of the moderate Tory Reform Group, the classic one nation ginger group.

But in the wider ministerial ranks, only Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt stands trenchantly in the tradition from which Young, Bottomley, Patten and Heseltine emerged.  Among younger Tories, perhaps only Swindon’s high church Robert Buckland MP and Richard Chalk, a former party CEO and sometime head of Ken Clarke’s leadership campaign, come close.  

Meanwhile, the very English "one nation" idea that state power can be used to back growth and build social inclusion is simply "Gaullist" according to Osborne devotee and FT journalist Janan Ganesh, "paternalistic" to some ministers and, in the view of the BBC’s Nick Robinson,  "not acceptable" to "Thatcher’s children", who now hold sway under Cameron. But "small tent" parties struggle to collect voters who have seen their neighbours break as factories close and community health provision evaporates. The centralising zeal of Duncan Smith’s apostles provokes mirth among  elected councillors of even his own party. There is hardly a Conservative local government leader that does not think they could get youngsters back into work faster than any scheme invented by the DWP or BIS in London. Tacking away to the right, Duncan Smith, Osborne and those like them , leave open huge swathes of popular opinion in marginal seats that are not affiliated  to any party but instinctively sense that more could be done, even at a time of fiscal rectitude, as things get tough.

For while Young, Heseltine and Patten remind us of a Conservative Party that was strong in the cities, in Scotland, among the rich and the poor they have lived an average of more than 70 years each. Despite their recent prominence, the fragments of their convictions are now unravelling as a new generation of Conservatives steps forward  beyond Cameron. While this sharpens the Conservative strategy in the run up to the next election, it perhaps explains why even the Prime Minister is now under so much pressure from within.  And why a young Labour leader has been so easily able to park his political tanks all over  the lawns of  the Tory one nation tradition. This is not, then, a moment of renewal  for the Tory left. It is in crisis, and no one in its own party cares.

Francis Davis served as a policy advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government under both Labour and the coalition government. He is a fellow at ResPublica and previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge.

Michael Heseltine, who published his government-commissioned review of growth policy yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder