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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.