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

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

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