There is a curious paradox to the commotion over alleged remarks from within David Cameron’s inner circle that Tory activists are all “swivel-eyed loons.” The newsworthiness of a statement is normally defined by its being surprising or unusual. The scale of a gaffe is also conditional on the celebrity of its author.
"Anonymous person says precisely what such a person might well be expected to say" is not, under normal circumstances, a front page story. Except on this occasion the vagueness and predictability are precisely the point. There is a fuss because someone in the Prime Minister’s gang – and it doesn’t really matter who because we are supposed to imagine them as a homogenous clique of braying posh boys – said just the kind of thing they would say, wouldn’t they.
Very few people outside Westminster have heard of Andrew Feldman, the object of much speculation in connection with the offending remarks. He is not identified as the speaker in the original news stories and vigorously denies saying anything along those lines. He must, then, be presumed innocent. As indeed Andrew Mitchell deserved to be when he insisted he had never called a police officer a “f**king pleb.” (Some of us said as much at the time.) He is now vindicated.
But as in the “pleb-gate” case, the charge of swivel-eyed lunacy is deadly not because someone actually uttered that formula but because so many Tories want it to have been uttered. The essential charge that the embittered anti-Cameron caucus in the party levels against their leader is that he is not a genuine Tory. His treason has a number of steps. First, he led the party away from the policy preoccupations that traditionally give it moral nourishment – Europe, crime, immigration – with the claim that election victory would be the reward. Second, he failed to uphold his side of the bargain in the 2010 general election. Third, he exploited that result, which should have been his own personal humiliation, fashioning from disappointment a weapon to further punish his party faithful – coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Viewed from a certain angle, and filtered through sufficient layers of thwarted ambition, this begins to look like a conspiracy. Cameron, it is supposed, must actively wish the truest and bluest section of his party ill. What has been missing to complete the grievance is evidence of malice. Strategic ineptitude has a certain redeemable quality. The path of righteousness is still available to the errant leader if he is open to persuasion, harassment and threat. (As it happens, Cameron has proved himself remarkable amenable to all three.) But a leader who despises his party – who speaks of it with supercilious contempt – cannot be cajoled. He is beyond redemption and must be replaced.
The reality is that a resolute hardcore of Tories, nurtured by the truculent mood in their local associations – and I pass here no judgment on the angle or rotation of their eyes – long ago passed from disappointment with Cameron to venomous hatred. That is probably an unreasonable response to man making tricky political calculations in complex circumstances. It feels more rational to hate someone, however, if it can be plausibly claimed he hated you first.
And it is in this psychological affirmation that the potency of “loon-gate” lies. Cameron definitely didn’t say it. Andrew Feldman insists he didn’t say it. If anyone said it at all, the circumstances were a private dinner of the kind at which incautious remarks are often made by senior politicians about their rank and file. I once heard a very prominent figure in Ukip describe his own party as full of “people who have failed at everything else in life and are feeling angry about it and want someone to blame.” I have seen plenty of Labour shadow ministerial eyes roll in despair at the views held by their own activists.
This alienation of the high command from the rank and file is as normal in political parties as it is in any large institution. One test of leadership is how the arising tension is managed and, in critical moments, eased. Cameron is dreadful at this bit of his job. Why? Partly it it is complacency that flows from his instinctive sense of entitlement. Given his background, there is no more natural vehicle for his ambitions than the Conservative party. Combined, those elements make it inconceivable to him that his Tory credentials could be somehow inauthentic. He is right, of course. If David Cameron doesn't count as proper Tory anymore, who or what does? It is the question to which Ukip fancy themselves the answer.
But the vast majority of Tories are still loyal to their party. They don’t want to be apostates or turncoats. Yet many want to carry on being Conservatives while also rejecting the elected leader of the Conservative party. Tricky. What they need is reassurance that such a sentiment is not rebellious or disloyal; that it is, in fact, a mark of decency and fidelity. They need, in other words, a sign that true Conservatism is antithetical to Cameronism – and what better proof could they have than an expression of withering scorn for true Conservatives from within the Prime Minister’s cosy cabal. Activists and members say they are outraged by the claim that they are mentally unhinged in some way. Justifiably, they feel insulted. Many are shocked. But many also feel vindicated; few are really surprised. The political force of this affair lies not in the wounding nature of the words supposed to have come from one of Cameron's chums, but in the voracious appetite of the Conservative party to feel wounded by them.