David Cameron arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories’ lack of discipline is a symptom of their unresolved identity crisis

The awareness that the party’s contradictions will not be resolved by Cameron explains the yearning for a new chieftain.  

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder