"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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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