"Loongate" shows some Tories want to be insulted by Cameron

There are Conservatives who need routine evidence of treason to justify perpetual rebellion against their leader.

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.

In what way is he not an authentic Tory? (Source: Getty)

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses