The 11th commandment, according to Ronald Reagan, was: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Invited to attack a colleague, the US president would cite this injunction and politely decline.
Reagan’s stance was not just good manners but good politics. As pollsters often attest, voters are repelled by divided parties. When politicians appear more focused on fighting each other than their opponents, the result is invariably defeat.
It is a lesson that the Tories need to learn again. This summer, there has been a vintage outbreak of blue-on-blue warfare. When Conservatives briefed against Sayeeda Warsi after her principled resignation over Gaza and she replied by denouncing the “public school” clique around David Cameron, they all violated Reagan’s commandment.
They also flouted Lynton Crosby’s advice. When the Conservatives’ election campaign manager addressed Tory MPs after his appointment, he warned them that division would prove fatal to their election chances and that they needed to decide whether they wanted to be “commentators” or “participants”. The Tories at present have a surfeit of the former and a dearth of the latter.
Worse, just as they have lost their discipline, Labour and the Lib Dems seem to have regained theirs. Both parties succumbed to infighting after their sub-par performances in the local and European elections. Labour’s shadow cabinet ministers entered into a blame game over the party’s campaign, while the Lib Dems publicly flirted with regicide. Yet both have since recovered their composure.
After last year’s “summer of silence” (in the words of a shadow minister), Labour has scheduled at least one shadow cabinet speech or intervention for each day of recess. It has worked. The attack grid has filled the vacuum that was occupied last year by backbench malcontents. “There’s no ‘Labour in crisis’ narrative and that’s made it harder for us,” one Tory MP admits. There are still significant numbers of MPs on the opposition side who believe that their party is heading for defeat, as Diane Abbott recently told a private meeting. But her comments, reported on the same day as Warsi’s resignation, went largely unnoticed in Westminster.
The Lib Dems’ position is no better than it was several months ago, with the party’s poll ratings still stuck in single figures. But there are no calls for Clegg to be replaced as leader, or for the party to withdraw from the coalition. The mood among the Lib Dems is one of resignation. There is a stoical acceptance that some MPs, particularly those in Labour-facing seats, are destined for defeat whatever they now say or do. The hope remains that the party will survive in government through another hung parliament, although an increasing number doubt Clegg’s ability to stay on in such circumstances. “Someone will have to pay a price if we lose more than 20 MPs,” one Lib Dem says. Another worries about “legitimacy issues” if the party wins fewer votes than Ukip.
The ructions on the Tory side reflect Cameron’s diminishing authority. When Warsi said it was not possible for the Conservatives to win a majority at the general election, owing to their failure to improve their standing among ethnic minorities (just 16 per cent of whom voted for the party in 2010), it was notable how few disputed her psephology. “We’ll struggle to hold most of our marginals against Labour, let alone win seats off them,” a Tory MP tells me.
The return of economic growth has not yet resulted in the polling dividend that some expected. One possible explanation, as private polling by Labour shows, is that as the recovery has accelerated, voters have become more concerned with issues such as living standards (on which Labour leads) and less concerned with challenges such as the deficit (on which the Tories lead).
Whether or not the Conservatives manage to cling on as the largest single party, it is hard to find a Tory who believes that Cameron either would or could serve a full second term. The Prime Minister, who will have been leader of his party for ten years by next December, is expected to depart after the in/out European Union referendum scheduled for 2017.
The result is that all Tories are anticipating the AD (After Dave) era. Confirmation of Boris Johnson’s planned return to the House of Commons has concentrated minds on the leadership contest to come. Of the current cabinet, George Osborne and Theresa May are expected to stand, with Liam Fox or Owen Paterson representing the revanchist right. This autumn’s conference is now destined to be a beauty parade of alternative leaders. For the contenders, the danger, or temptation, of what David Miliband once referred to as a “Heseltine moment” will be great.
Overriding these personalities is the Conservatives’ continuing identity crisis. All political parties are coalitions but the Tories’ divisions are of a different order. The party contains some of the most socially liberal MPs and some of the most socially conservative; some of the most interventionist and some of the most isolationist. It is a mark of the Conservatives’ confusion that they have anointed Johnson, a libertarian supporter of equal marriage and one of the few unambiguously pro-immigration politicians, as their secret weapon against Ukip. The awareness that these ironies and contradictions will not be resolved by Cameron explains the yearning for a new chieftain.
On one point, most Conservatives can still agree: it is better to win than to lose. There is genuine fear of what a Miliband government would mean for the country in a way there never was under the accommodationist Blair. Victory for Labour would end the laissez-faire consensus that they continue to cherish. To avert this outcome, the Tories need to remember: a party that appears to be preparing for defeat is usually rewarded with it.