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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.