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The long Tory civil war

Theresa May has lost all authority and those around her know it – which is why the Conservative party conference will be little more than a beauty parade for the various narcissists scheming to be the next leader.

At the start of Robert Icke’s wonderful production of Mary Stuart – transferring soon from the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London, to the West End – a coin is spun onstage to determine which parts the two leading actresses will play. It is a quirk of fate each night that decides whether Juliet Stevenson or Lia Williams will take the role of Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots. The idea is that, though one lives in a palace and the other in a cell, the characters are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. Both are trapped by public expectations and the narrowness of their roles. As the play has the monarch say: “The crown is just a prison cell with jewels.” Yet it soon becomes clear which one has power. The moment the coin lands, all the other actors turn and bow towards Elizabeth, while Mary shrinks away into a corner. It is a vivid reminder that leadership may be won, but authority is bestowed.

Nobody understands that better than the Conservatives, who meet for their party conference in Manchester between 1 and 4 October. Theresa May – trapped in the gilded jail of Downing Street – has lost all authority and those around her know it. Though it was not quite a toss of a coin that led to her becoming Tory leader, she rose to the top of her party after an extraordinary sequence of events in which her rivals imploded in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum.

Rather than taking advantage of her position, she squandered her parliamentary majority and sacrificed her credibility by fighting a dire campaign ahead of a general election that she didn’t need to call. Now power has almost visibly drained from her. Held to ransom by the Democratic Unionist Party, too weak to reshuffle and unable even to implement her manifesto, she has lost control of her cabinet ministers and no longer commands the respect of her MPs.

The enforced show of unity on Europe ahead of the Florence speech on 22 September was a phoney display that did not even survive the weekend. “Poor old Theresa,” says one senior MP. “She’s in office but not in power. What’s the point of being Prime Minister if you’re just chained to the radiator in No 10?” A former Downing Street aide admits: “I’m not sure she really knows what she thinks or wants to do with power.”  

Though May insists that she intends to go on and on, no Conservative MP seriously expects her to lead her party into the next election. The political power dynamic has been reversed. Normally MPs’ careers depend on their leader, but now her future is completely in their hands. One former cabinet minister told me recently that she was on “life support”, and the only question was when the party would pull the plug. “The first time she’s in trouble again, people will firm up against her. And the second time, they will get rid of her,” he said. “She’s two crises away from being ditched.”

Instead of bending the knee to the monarch, the actors on the Tory stage are turning their backs on their leader and performing to the audience. The party conference in Manchester will be one big talent contest in which cabinet ministers hope to catch the eye of the party activists who will elect the next Conservative leader. In an echo of the Oscars ceremony, every address will be a passionate and patriotic declaration of love for the crowd. Those who are not granted a slot to address the hall will be hyperactive on the fringe. With the Prime Minister living on borrowed time, her rivals are preparing for the future. Members of the Tory grass roots, who pounded the pavements in a near-hopeless cause this June, are in an unforgiving mood towards their leader and searching for a new idol who can sprinkle a little stardust on their ailing party.

Already Boris Johnson, the blond bombshell with box office appeal, has stepped into the spotlight with a 4,200-word soliloquy on Brexit, published in the Telegraph less than a week before the Prime Minister’s Europe speech in Florence. While professing loyalty, the Foreign Secretary conspicuously pirouetted away from the Conservative leader and towards the Eurosceptic Tory party members. His supporters compared him to Henry V at Agincourt, leading his Brexit “band of brothers” to victory – though others suggest that he is more like Shakespeare’s young Prince Hal, distracted into foolish ways and yet to emerge as a statesman. Either way, it is clear that Johnson has no intention of departing the stage without a fight. “Mrs Thatcher would have sent [her press secretary] Bernard Ingham out to say Boris was semi-detached,” says one senior Tory. “Theresa May should have sacked him, but she didn’t dare.”

***

David Davis, the Conservative Party’s action man, is also rehearsing his script. His role in the Brexit talks gives him the chance to flex his Eurosceptic muscles and throw punches at Brussels while smiling at the audience in his conference speech. He would certainly do his own stunts if he were starring in his own show. There was a pickaxe propped up in the corner of his House of Commons office when I visited him once, and there has always been a hint of menace in his swagger. David Cameron is among those who think that the Brexit Secretary is likely to lead his party into the next election.

But Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Priti Patel and Sajid Javid are also waiting in the wings. Ruth Davidson, the kick-boxing lesbian Scottish Tory leader – who is as active on social media as any theatrical starlet – is certain to wow the social-liberal wing of the party in Manchester with her distinctive version of compassionate Conservatism. Though she is not even an MP, the unavailability of the Tories’ Queen of Scots only increases her appeal.

Meanwhile, the young pretenders (including Jacob Rees-Mogg) will have the chance to audition before the party faithful for a future starring role. The leader’s speech is conventionally the highlight of any party conference but, this year, at least as much attention will be focused on the alternatives. “They’re all egomaniacs,” says one Tory grandee, “and the Prime Minister doesn’t have the authority to stop them sounding off.”

It is extraordinarily self-indulgent. The multiple threats of North Korea, Russia, terrorism and climate change – as well as the challenge of the Brexit negotiations – loom but the Tories are engaged in their leadership wars. Johnson even published his Daily Telegraph article the day after a bomb was planted on the London Underground and the terror threat was raised to critical. A minister describes the Foreign Secretary as a “narcissist” who cannot bear to go a week without being in the headlines, but the truth is that the whole Tory party is guilty of collective narcissism.

What is the fogeyish Old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg if not a pinstriped reflection of the Conservative traditionalists? The party is entranced by its own image, just as Narcissus was so captivated by his reflection in a pool of water that he lost the will to live. Andrea Leadsom – who made clear that she, too, is still interested in the Tory leadership by rushing to the scene of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, west London – offers another version of self-referring reassurance. She pulled out of last year’s leadership contest after suggesting to me, in an interview for the Times, that being a mother made her a better choice as prime minister than Theresa May because it gave her a “stake” in the future of the country.

At the time, she claimed that her comments had been taken out of context, but I have since been told that, during the preparations for the EU referendum debates, the American strategist Brett O’Donnell, hired by the Leave campaign, repeatedly told Leadsom to say that she supported Brexit “as a mother” in an attempt to humanise her arguments. I suspect that she thought a similar strategy would appeal to the Tory family-values brigade.

***

As the country faces the biggest economic and diplomatic challenge since the Second World War, the Conservative Party is focusing on itself. The UK’s future relationship with the EU is dependent not on what is best for the country but on the fallout from a 50-year-old internal feud. A group of pro-European Tory MPs recently visited May in Downing Street. When they asked her how she intended to hold the party together, she had no answer. She simply changed the subject and started talking about the detail of amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. One former minister says that Europe is “a cancer in the Tory party. It destroyed Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, and it will do for Theresa May, too.” Privately some ministers, who supported Remain, admit that they still believe Brexit will be an economic disaster but see no way to stop it without destroying their tribe. “Ultimately it comes down to party before country,” one MP says.

Instead of looking outward at the voters, the Tories are turning inward. Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary and leading pro-European rebel, says: “A number of us are heartbroken about what’s happened to the party. Ten years after David Cameron became leader, all the work that went into making the Conservative Party electable, appealing to people in parts of the country where we had been a lost cause, has just been thrown away. The fact that we are now back to banging on about Europe rather than talking about the issues people care about is beyond depressing, and we will be punished for it.”

Younger Tories are beside themselves with frustration about the lack of seriousness at the top. “They’re all behaving like children,” says one Conservative aide. “Philip Hammond has been playing up because he was upset about being sidelined before the election; Boris Johnson is trying to be crowned Miss World. The personalities have got completely in the way of the job they are supposed to be doing. They think they’re resting on Easy Street and they need to get their act together or Jeremy Corbyn will be in power.”

A growing number of Tory MPs are convinced that the Labour leader will soon be in No 10. One says: “I think we are in a worsening and deepening mess in general, and specifically with young people. It’s just rescuable. We are not yet in a 1997 situation where nothing could stop it, but it’s bloody close.” 

Having lost their parliamentary majority at the election, many Conservatives worry that their support base is quite literally dying out. A recent YouGov poll found that Labour had a 52-point lead over the Conservatives among people aged 18 to 24, with 66 per cent saying that they would vote for Corbyn’s party, compared with just 14 per cent for May’s. If it is hard to trust polls any more, real results support the trend. Fifty years ago, political allegiance was all about class, but at the recent general election, age was what most clearly pointed to how people would vote.

There was a similar generational divide in the EU referendum, with 69 per cent of young adults supporting Remain, compared with 31 per cent for Leave – almost precisely the reverse of the breakdown among pensioners. After years of wooing the elderly with policies such as the pension “triple lock”, the Tories are sufficiently spooked by the collapse in support among younger voters that they are frantically searching for policies to win over a new generation. The political shift is not just about individual policies – on tuition fees or housing, for example. It’s about values. A generation of pro-European voters who feel betrayed by Brexit won’t easily forgive the party that delivers it.

***

Social and economic changes are also working against the Tories. Public faith in capitalism and free markets has been shaken in general by the economic crash. At the same time, the vehicles of stability that encouraged the transition from youthful idealism to middle-aged caution – home ownership, job security, rising wages, family responsibilities – have become increasingly rare for Generation Rent.

David Willetts, the former Conservative cabinet minister, compares his party to the ageing farmer in the French film Jean de Florette who blocks up the spring to harm his youthful neighbour and ends up destroying his own prospects. “The danger is that the sources of support for our party, as people get a stake in society, are being blocked for the younger generation,” says Willetts, who now runs the Resolution Foundation think tank, which is conducting an inquiry into intergenerational unfairness.

Philip Hammond was shouted down at a recent meeting of Tory MPs when he suggested that the party’s “youth problem” could be blamed on student exuberance. “For the Tories this is an existential crisis,” says one veteran MP. “I don’t know any young person who voted Conservative at the last election – my own two children voted Labour and Lib Dem. We have allowed people to forget the lessons that Mrs Thatcher taught us about why Corbynism doesn’t work. Everything in government is [about] Europe and divisions in the Tory party.”

A group of younger Conservative MPs, not scarred by the party’s battles over Maastricht or traumatised by the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, is trying to carve out a distinctive agenda. Robert Halfon, the Harlow MP and newly elected chair of the Commons education committee, warns that the Conservatives have alienated working-class voters as well as the young. An advocate of what he calls “white-van conservatism”, he wants the Tories to become the “party of the workers” and replace the logo of a tree with a ladder to represent aspiration.

“We have a problem with our language and our narrative,” Halfon says. “No one cares if someone has gone to Eton. What they mind about is if we are on their side, and too many people don’t feel we are on their side. We need to claim back language from the left – words like social justice, redistribution and compassion, and do them in Conservative ways.”

He is not the only one trying to change the party’s mindset. George Freeman, the MP for Mid Norfolk and chair of the Conservative policy board, insists that the Tories must come to terms with what he calls the “insurgency against unaccountable elites” that has swept through politics since the economic crash. His recent “Big Tent Ideas Fest” was an attempt to prove to voters that the party is listening, and some MPs would like to see him made party chairman. He blames the popular revolt on a growing “crisis of disconnection” between those at the top and the bottom of British society. “Healthy organisations are like a pyramid – broad and welcoming at the bottom, meritocratic so people can rise up to the top and with leadership from somebody clearly accountable at the top,” he says, “but there’s a deep sense across Britain that in many walks of life – politics, banking, media, even sport – the pyramid of trust and accountability has been inverted.”

Instead of being defined by austerity and “parlour-game politics”, the Tories must seek a “moment of electrifying national renewal”, Freeman argues. “Thinking we can just pick off individual bits of the electorate with specific policies is a mistake. We should be the party that lifts the soul and speaks to the ambitions of the next generation, rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by a culturally, economically and socially isolationist Alf Garnett version of Brexit.”

There is still some energy and enthusiasm in the Tory ranks but, with a vacuum at the top, it is hard for the party to settle on a new direction. The truth is that the Tories’ rows over Brexit are so bitter because they tap into deep, long-standing divisions about the nature of sovereignty and national identity. They are also part of a temperamental and ideological split between small-C conservatives, such as Philip Hammond, who believe that their party’s duty is to maintain stability, and Tory radicals, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who believe that progress is made only through “creative destruction”. This is about the nature of Conservatism as well as the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

Theresa May is caught in the middle, unsure of herself and too weak to decide whether the Tories should stand for flag-waving nostalgia or buccaneering globalism, hard-headed austerity or a passion for social justice, muscular interventionism or free-market liberalism. The coin spins on the stage, and it is not only the Prime Minister’s future that is up in the air but her party’s, too.

Rachel Sylvester writes for the Times

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper with and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

A few goes in, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy