If David Cameron only entered politics now, would he even be a Tory?

Imagine Cameron had a successful PR career before standing as an MP – there’s every chance he’d feel more comfortable as a Lib Dem than a Conservative. Which grass roots movement would be more upset?

 

Over the last two weeks I’ve been wrestling with a couple of questions. Trouble is, I only have an answer for the first. Perhaps you could all help me with the second?

My first poser is this. Let’s imagine that David Cameron had not gone into politics when he did. Entranced by the magical world of PR, he eschewed the chance to be an MP to pursue a career in the media, but now, 20 years on and full of regret, he decided he would like to give it another go. Which party would he join?

Well, according to Conservative Home the achievements the current government should be most proud of – and therefore presumably most attractive to a prospective new recruit – are the Equal Marriage Act, protecting the International Aid budget and raising the income tax threshold to £10,000. You don’t have to be much of a student of politics to know that they are three core Liberal Democrat policies – and the comment section of the Conservative Home article would suggest that the Tory grass roots don’t have much time for them. But as the Tory party is now furiously laying claim to them, presumably Cameron is in fact, quite keen…

Then you think about the things David Cameron first cared about when he became Conservative leader – you remember, when he wanted everyone to hug a hoodie or a husky, when (on his election) Norman Tebbit described him as wanting to build a “New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware Party” (it wasn’t a compliment) and he ditched the Tory Torch for an oak tree . And you look at the Tory party now – pulled rightward by UKIP, anti wind farms, demanding marriage tax breaks and reductions in inheritance tax, – and you wonder how comfortable Cameron feels inside the party he leads. It’s not really the vision he started with, is it?

And now he must cast a glance at the Lib Dems – who originated those policies the Tory party now claims as their proudest achievement. Who remain passionate about the Green agenda Cameron once wanted to claim as his own . Whose leadership (much to the chagrin of the Lib Dem grass roots) appear to support all sorts of policies that Cameron apparently also  feels comfortable with, from Secret Courts to Press Regulation to Immigration.

And you wonder if the David Cameron who joined the Tories in his twenties would now look at the Lib Dems and the Tories, and find, perhaps to his surprise, that in fact he had rather more in common with the former than the latter.

Which brings me on to my second question, to which I have no answer. If indeed it is true that the current Conservative Prime Minister would today feel more comfortable in the Lib Dems than in his own party, who should be more alarmed about that fact – the Tory membership, or the Lib Dem grassroots?

 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser