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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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