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