Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tory Refuseniks emerge from the rubble

It does not take any particular genius to notice that the Conservatives are a fairly disparate and occasionally divided party. The battles of the "Nasty Party" (tm. our new Home Secretary), were mostly with each other, not with the other parties, which is why their electoral record became so poor. The Cameroons were, and are, a minority that is forced to do deals within a shifting pattern of allegiances. Nothing too unusual there: most parties are the same in that sense. What made the Conservatives divisions so painful was the incredible vehemence with which different sides held their views. Instead of the rather senior common room atmosphere of party debates amongst the Liberal Democrats, the Tories like to conduct their debates like a fight in the playground: no quarter is given. Any change in approach is examined for signs of weakness- and compromise by one's own side is regarded as the blackest betrayal. The Conservative debate on Europe, for example, degenerated into a shouting match of extreme ugliness.

Even now there are those who are very much in the Conservative tradition who are- shall we say- Dave-sceptics. The idea of liberal-Conservatives struck them, at best, as odd. Now, of course we have a Liberal-Conservative government. The shock of that outcome is only just beginning to subside. On the Liberal Democrat side, the special conference at least allowed the rank and file to vent some steam and pretend that they could at least negotiate with the Leadership and the Federal Executive of the Party. In the end the members of the party- even the dissenters- can feel that they have some ownership of the decision making which has led to the creation of the Coalition government. The Liberal Democrats are at peace with themselves.

The Tories, by contrast do not have such safety valves. There are a number of Dave-sceptics who were keeping quiet in the hope that the could gain more influence as part of a far more right-wing intake of Tory MPs. However, the luck of the draw, and the fact of the coalition means that the hopes for office that many of these had held have now been dashed. Enforced idleness is dangerous for dissenting minds, and we know that idle hands can become very mischievous.

So it is that the Prime Minister is seeking to gain control over the 1922 committee- one of the few sources of power in the Parliamentary party that could threaten him. It is an interesting historical artifact that the '22 was founded in order to remove the last Liberal-Conservative government from office and replace it with a single party Conservative one. Mr. Cameron does not want to take the risk of that happening again. I expect that he will either succeed entirely, or he will gain a de facto victory that will indeed remove the potential threat. The fact that the leadership of the '22 is now vacant certainly gives Mr. Cameron a golden opportunity to neuter the one group that has the legitimacy to remove him against his will.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the Conservatives are generally more uncertain about the coalition. I don't think that the latest stories being planted by the negotiating team that "Oliver Letwin outplayed the Lib Dems" are unconnected with the fact that a large number of the Conservatives think that it was the Lib Dems who outplayed Oliver Letwin. The coalition agreement- with the vexed question of Europe conveniently left aside as the result of the current crisis of the Euro- does indeed look like a series of victories for the Lib Dems- especially on constitutional reform. I expect we will hear more stories about how the Conservatives "really" won the negotiations.

However the Cameroons will be considering very carefully how that can maintain at least a semblance of party loyalty amongst a group of activists and MPs who have got used to the easy disloyalty they were permitted in opposition. Whereas once loyalty was the Conservatives' secret weapon, now their secret vice is plotting. A habit developed before the fall of Margaret Thatcher, perfected under John Major, then destroyed three Tory leaders in a row. It was thus 13 years before- however partially- David Cameron could return the party to office. There are many refuseniks amongst the Conservatives. I have little doubt that such figures as Iain Liddell-Grainger, John Redwood or Dan Hannan are still unconvinced by the current situation. The Cornerstone group of 40-odd socially conservative MPs could create trouble too- although their influence is lessening in the face of the antics of some of their members.

Yet the government is at least now in place. The Liberal Democrats and the liberal Conservatives have sufficient common ground to work closely together even though there remain large numbers of Tories who are pretty anti-coalition. The question now is whether they can pose a threat to the stability of the government. As Labour enters a long leadership campaign of introspection, the temptation for the dis-empowered Tory backbenchers might be to make trouble. The Prime Minister knows this, of course, but I can't help wondering if it might not be wiser to engage with the some of the refuseniks rather than to try to crush them.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister probably knows better than most how self-destructive some Conservatives can be. Perhaps the Coalition may give him the confidence to finally settle a few more old scores with those who have been most vehement in condemning his attempts to "modernise" his party. So, those who give in to temptation and speak out of turn may find themselves in deep trouble: as perhaps the '22 is already finding.

1 comment:

Newmania said...

Good summary, your accusation that Conservatives are , on occasion ,more vehement probably has something to it . This is only moderately so in the UK , but conservatives in general accord a higher value to loyalty , faith ,tradition and a range of human “emotions” , that Liberals tend to regard more as obstacles to “Progress” .

Thwe 1922 C issue does look a rather heavy handed ploy but I assume David Cameron anticipates choppy seas ahead