The Tory "bastards" are back - and it's Labour that wins

The Tories' fratricidal infighting may well ensure an outcome they despise even more than their leader: the election of a Labour government.

The phrase became synonymous with a disintegrating Conservative Party, and a prime minister’s rage and frustration with his cabinet colleagues; of an era when the Conservative Party, a force that had dominated British governance in the twentieth century, was simply ungovernable. In an unguarded outburst the then prime minister John Major referred to three of his own cabinet as “bastards”, giving a glimpse into the anger, obvious contempt and deep divisions that riddled a visibly dying party. The myth of British politics is that it is only the Labour Party that does visceral, internal warfare. Admittedly, Blair and Brown gave it a good go, but only the Conservatives do fratricidal infighting with such ruthlessness – and they’re currently in the midst of repeating their decade-long breakdown.

David Cameron returned the Tories, just about, to government from their longest period in political exile since the split over the Corn Laws during the 1840s. Not that his party are at all grateful, mind. Far from being a natural party of government, today’s Conservative Party increasingly resembles a party of resentment. Bitterness, nostalgia and fantasy grip the party. Driving the sense of haplessness is much of the right-wing press, who have seemingly tired of Cameron, and, from the grassroots, ConservativeHome has emerged as the principal receptacle for all the bile the party's faithful can legitimately publish.

The source of all their ire is their leader, whose obituary has already been written. Leader for nearly eight years, prime minister for three, his party has already mentally removed him from their collective conscience. A consensus has formed; his premiership has been marked by, at best, a series of outright disappointments and at worst downright treachery. Conservative commentators brazenly talk of the prime minister’s precarious position, of the myriad of plots to unseat him, of the king across the water – whoever he or she may be – of a promise to return to the golden era of yesteryear.

The party’s increasing tendency towards regicide is the culmination of Cameron’s failed attempt to modernise, and outright win with, the Conservative Party. The modernising pretence is now long since cast off. The party faithful were quietly loathing of Cameron’s guise and, since he didn’t win, now openly detest the coalition with a brooding sense of impending, crushing, defeat.

The spectacle of the Conservative Party in turmoil is oddly familiar for those with painful memories of Labour. Labour knows all too well what a prime minister of limited ability can do to a political party and movement that, in so many respects, considers itself as more of a higher, near religious calling than the skulduggery of humdrum politics.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this struggle about the direction of the Conservative Party, the chief beneficiary of the rise of these Tory “bastards” is the Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband. While the Conservative Party self-destructs, it is letting its oldest foe off the hook. Content that the Tories are too interested in fighting between themselves, Labour has begun the long, slow process of reconciliation from the nadir of 2010. The party is riding high in the opinion polls, if only by default, whilst the sternest political rival Miliband faced – his brother – has signalled his departure.

Swathes of the Conservative Party show no interest in disengaging themselves from this self-interested, neurotic and ambivalent fight for its future. Much of the poison, just as Major remarked, is coming from the dispossessed and the never-possessed. As Matthew Parris recently noted, those on the Conservative Party’s frontline, those in the marginal seats, do not share the gloom of the more vocal doom-mongers. Funnily enough, those pushing this vehement anti-Cameron agenda are those in ultra-safe seats; those with the time to spend pontificating on mostly pointless positioning.

Labour, of course, has much to do to win the next general election outright. But at the moment the party should be indebted to the Conservatives for their predicament. Miliband is an increasingly assured leader, confident in his position as party leader and his vision for the party – announcing at the weekend the decision to remove the decaying “command and control” structure that so personified New Labour, and so disconnected the party from its members and supporters. 

This new generation of Tory “bastards” are completely unapologetic about discrediting Cameron. Their ranks lie not predominantly in the cabinet, but on the backbenches, in the broadsheets, on the blogs, and in the constituencies. Their chorus is united. Their scalp, like the drama of the 1990s, is their leader. The one certainty about British politics is that they will never change and their efforts may well, ironically, ensure an outcome they despise even more than their leader: the election of a Labour government.

David Talbot is a political consultant

The party’s increasing tendency towards regicide is the culmination of Cameron’s failed attempt to modernise his party. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.