The first quality that strikes you about Michael Gove, like the Conservative Party itself, is his endurance. For 13 years in office Gove has endured minor successes and major humiliations; he’s endured six ministerial jobs and some chastened spells on the back benches between them; he’s endured two stalled attempts to seize 10 Downing Street, each demonstrating that he was not fit to be prime minister by the humbling way that he failed.
When he was education secretary in the early 2010s, academics described Gove as “ignorant” and “ghastly”, and a member of the National Union of Teachers labelled him “a demented Dalek on speed”. After Gove was involved in yet another bust-up with the teaching unions, David Cameron tried to ameliorate a furious Nick Clegg by reminding him that Gove was “basically a bit of a Maoist”. Louise Richardson, then the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said she was “embarrassed” that Gove was an alumnus after the role he played during the Brexit referendum, when he claimed that the British people had “had enough of experts”.
During Gove’s years in government, Tory colleagues, aware that he had a knife-wielding hand in the political murders of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, have called him a “snake”, “mendacious”, “troubled” and “full of darkness”.
Yet, if you’ve opened a newspaper in the past 13 years you would probably have seen Gove’s rubber face goggling back at you. He is always there. Taking on another ministerial post, making another policy announcement, apologising for taking cocaine as a young journalist; Gove is constantly shifting and moving and doing, or giving the valuable impression of dynamism. Though all too painfully human – who hasn’t tried to avoid a £5 nightclub entry fee by stating he was the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as Gove reportedly did in 2021? – politically he seems immortal. Good man or not, like the Conservatives themselves, Gove cannot be kept down.
In another context Trotsky called this permanent revolution. Gove embodies it, and the Tories have been its standard bearers since the 17th century. The party doesn’t have a motto, but if it did it should be Cambiare tutto perché niente cambi – change everything so that nothing changes. This balancing act between reaction and retreat is never far from Tory minds, whatever century they’re thinking in. At times, especially recently, the rest of the nation has seemed little more than the collateral damage from this psychodrama.
Still, Tories like to boast that their prudence and foresight have saved Britain from social revolution several times over the centuries. Alongside that truth, however, lies a more uncomfortable one for a party that supposedly defends the status quo: the Tories impose bloodless revolutions on the country every 50 years or so. Their reward? To be the greatest certainty in British politics, and the most successful election-winning machine in the history of party democracy anywhere in the world. Take the longest view and the picture becomes clear. Britain is a one-party state. A Conservative nation.
Does that mean hegemony is over? That’s the obvious conclusion from Tim Bale’s The Conservative Party After Brexit. Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, has written about the Conservatives many times before. Taking in the years from 2016 to 2022, this volume in Bale’s history of the modern party is a study in claustrophobic volatility. Bale used to think politics made sense. There were structures, forces and strategies in play. When observing the death-drive Tories of the Brexit era, however, he became “increasingly persuaded” that politicians are “tactical and reactive”. In other words, they are actors whose mayfly careers span a brutally short time, and are directed by the imperatives of what will be on television, what will trend on Twitter and what will be in the newspapers tomorrow.
In The Conservative Party After Brexit, politics is not ideological. Bale’s Westminster is an airless cocoon, where factionalism rules. For Bale, the Tory decline after Brexit continues to be a game played by about 100 people: politicians, newspaper editors and owners, lobby hacks (Bale calls them “the party in the media”), senior civil servants and spouses. This is the bitchy, leaky, fluidly incestuous landscape which underpinned the Telegraph’s exclusive “Lockdown Files” – the publication of a tranche of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages sent to officials during the pandemic. The messages were made public too late for Bale to integrate them into his book, but they confirmed his central observation. The interplay of individuals influences their decision-making more than their beliefs do.
[See also: The end of the Brexit taboo]
Bale’s book is absent of any organising principle other than chaos, which makes it a dispiriting read. Does anybody involved in Tory politics come out of this era well? Not really. Theresa May, Johnson and Truss are all, in the lethal one-word Tory coinage for bad leaders, “duds”. The spreadsheet king Philip Hammond is simply bewildering. Kwasi Kwarteng self-destructs. The otherwise unemployable MPs are best summed up by Bale’s withering aside in this sketch of Grant Shapps, “whose supposedly ‘legendary’ ability to put together and maintain a spreadsheet covering the whole of the parliamentary party had earned him the breathless admiration of his more technologically challenged colleagues”.
The party membership – or the “fascist grannies” as I have heard them described by more than one Tory MP – are the element that has been most transformed by Brexit. Historically, the party was one of dim-witted country squires, gentle mumbling parsons, and magnificently negligent aristocrats, but by the Brexit years the members wanted to burn it all down.
The power of these 172,000 people – who are more elderly, well-off and right-wing than Tory voters generally, let alone the rest of the electorate – to select the leader of the party is the greatest danger to the Tories now. Over the past two decades their selections, from Iain Duncan Smith to Truss, have frequently put them at odds with the parliamentary party. Tory MPs are too often led by someone most of them don’t want to be leader. These tensions tend to culminate in tribal bloodlettings, leaving the party diminished and its membership irritated. Hence the members’ ever-growing radicalism. Bale’s polls show that they are not even patriotic, nor do they care much for their membership cards. In 2019, pollsters found that they would sacrifice both the Union and the party on the altar of getting Brexit done.
What happened next – a landslide general election victory and a supposed “realignment” of British politics around the values of men who look, think and speak like Lee Anderson – collapsed in on itself during the pandemic. At this point Bale swerves to the headband-wearing elephant in the room: Carrie Johnson. Her power, which scalped the Bismarck-quoting guru Dominic Cummings and shaped the court politics of Johnson’s Downing Street, is under-examined by Bale. He merely notes, as the government (branded the “people’s party”) choked on its own lies in June 2022, that Johnson and “Carrie had tried and failed to get approval for a £150,000 treehouse for their son in the garden of Chequers”. The Johnsons’ court collapsed amid allegations of venality, cronyism and improperly acquiring exquisite wallpaper. Even then, what happened in those years may be much worse than is generally known.
What The Conservative Party After Brexit lacks – historical depth and literary flair – is made up for by Samuel Earle’s Tory Nation. Earle’s premise is simple. The Tories are bad people: bad morally, and bad at governing Britain. Similar to Gove, they are “full of darkness”. Yet for 200 winding years Britain has amply rewarded them at the ballot box: “19 different leaders have contested elections, and only four have failed to win at least one, with the party holding power for roughly two-thirds of the time”, writes Earle. Life under the Tories has “become nastier, poorer, more brutish and shorter”, yet still they win. How to explain this apparent paradox?
Earle has his reasons. There is the enduring antique power held by the Tories through the House of Lords and the first-past-the-post system, not to mention the donations that the party tends to accrue when its central ideology is the defence of property. Then there is what biologists call “aggressive mimicry”; the ruthless appropriation of the arguments, policies and personnel of rival parties. In their time predatory Tories have cannibalised several entities that have strayed too close: the Peelites, Liberal Unionists, National Liberals, coalition Liberals and the Brexit Party.
Tory Nation is at its most entertainingly saturnine when Earle explains what Conservative success says about Britain. He quotes the campaigner Richard Cobden on the British: “We are a servile, aristocracy-loving, lord-ridden people.” Frankly, we love what the late Tom Nairn called “the glamour of backwardness”. Affection flows from below towards the institutions and patriotic symbols the Tories claim association with, such as the monarchy, the armed forces and the Union Jack. Meanwhile the left is marooned in a Britain of the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists and the miners’ strike. The Tories can cast their opponents (with ease) as “unpatriotic, foreign and divisive”.
Unlike Labour, the Tories have always grasped the darker side of Britain. The nation that hymns the NHS, but would like to birch criminals. A populace that gives millions to charity, but also includes many who would like to close the borders. Citizens who are at once kindly and decent, as well as suspicious and cruel. Understanding this, whether consciously or not, has been critical to the Conservative Party’s success. Labour only wins when it acknowledges the country it is competing to lead. As such, when it does win, Labour will govern on Tory terms.
The problem, however, with changing everything so that nothing changes is that you do have to change everything. Permanent revolution has its costs. What sense does Samuel Johnson’s definition of a Tory – “One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England” – make now?
Even though the Tories have won elections, they have experienced deep, existential defeat throughout the 20th century. Britain in 1900 was Rome. By 2000 it was Italy. Empire, parliament, church, family – authority in all its forms disintegrated. Aristocracy was usurped by celebrity. The monarchy was reduced to a soap opera and high culture an appendage of the state: both rely today on government charity. The institutions that Tories traditionally revere are no longer really alive. They are stuffed ornaments The “Maoism” of Gove, the nihilism of Johnson, and the absurd risk-taking of Truss comes from knowing this. Britain is not what it once was. To be a Tory is to live with despair, however deeply buried it is in public.
In the nerve-centre of Tory power, in the privacy of the Carlton Club in London, a large, brooding portrait of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, hangs above the central staircase. Salisbury led the party for 20 years and was prime minister three times. He was an astral reactionary pessimist whose policy when in power was to do as little as possible. If he was transported to Britain today, he would likely reach for the nearest revolver and turn it on himself. Consider that it is he, not the revolutionary Margaret Thatcher or the fatherly Stanley Baldwin, who has pride of place in the spiritual home of Toryism. The portrait is bleak. Salisbury looks, appropriately, like he is about to cry.
So too does Gove these days. Friends reported that he was “wiser, but also sadder” in 2021. As usual, what could be said of Gove could be said of the Tories. Taken together, Bale and Earle’s books reveal how much the party has tried to do, and how often it has failed to do it.
Bale and Earle leave the Conservatives under the spruce, doomed Rishi Sunak, with the mid-2020s looking odds-on to produce one of those rare, epochal 1997-style defeats that haunt Tory history. Earle’s book will linger longer than Bale’s, in what I suspect will be unanticipated ways. When the Tories begin their long, bloody climb back to the throne after defeat in the next general election, they will have Tory Britain as a blueprint for how to do it. Every strategy is there. A gift from its author to some future Michael Gove.
The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation
Polity, 384pp, £25
Tory Nation: How One Party Took Over
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99
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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age