David Cameron arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The 5 things the Tories aren't telling you about their manifesto

Turns out the NHS is something you really have to pay for after all. 

When Theresa May launched the Conservative 2017 manifesto, she borrowed the most popular policies from across the political spectrum. Some anti-immigrant rhetoric? Some strong action on rip-off energy firms? The message is clear - you can have it all if you vote Tory.

But can you? The respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has now been through the manifesto with a fine tooth comb, and it turns out there are some things the Tory manifesto just doesn't mention...

1. How budgeting works

They say: "a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade"

What they don't say: The Conservatives don't talk very much about new taxes or spending commitments in the manifesto. But the IFS argues that balancing the budget "would likely require more spending cuts or tax rises even beyond the end of the next parliament."

2. How this isn't the end of austerity

They say: "We will always be guided by what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation."

What they don't say: The manifesto does not backtrack on existing planned cuts to working-age welfare benefits. According to the IFS, these cuts will "reduce the incomes of the lowest income working age households significantly – and by more than the cuts seen since 2010".

3. Why some policies don't make a difference

They say: "The Triple Lock has worked: it is now time to set pensions on an even course."

What they don't say: The argument behind scrapping the "triple lock" on pensions is that it provides an unneccessarily generous subsidy to pensioners (including superbly wealthy ones) at the expense of the taxpayer.

However, the IFS found that the Conservatives' proposed solution - a "double lock" which rises with earnings or inflation - will cost the taxpayer just as much over the coming Parliament. After all, Brexit has caused a drop in the value of sterling, which is now causing price inflation...

4. That healthcare can't be done cheap

They say: "The next Conservative government will give the NHS the resources it needs."

What they don't say: The £8bn more promised for the NHS over the next five years is a continuation of underinvestment in the NHS. The IFS says: "Conservative plans for NHS spending look very tight indeed and may well be undeliverable."

5. Cutting immigration costs us

They say: "We will therefore establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs." 

What they don't say: The Office for Budget Responsibility has already calculated that lower immigration as a result of the Brexit vote could reduce tax revenues by £6bn a year in four years' time. The IFS calculates that getting net immigration down to the tens of thousands, as the Tories pledge, could double that loss.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496