Allan Massie: Tories return to joy of in-fighting
Conservative rebels risk tearing the coalition apart – and many seem almost eager to do just that, writes Allan Massie
The Conservative Party used to think of itself as the natural party of government. Given that it was in office for so much of the 20th century, this was understandable. Nevertheless there was an element of delusion. For just over 20 years, 1915-22 and 1931-45, it was in coalition with other parties, even if from 1931 to 1940 it was the dominant party in the national government. Moreover, its periods of ascendancy were, in part anyway, made possible by developments for which it wasn’t responsible: the gradual replacement of the Liberals by Labour as the party of the Left; the near extinction of the Liberals after 1945, from which that party took years to recover; the Labour split after 1979, when its right-wing went off to form the SDP, which soon coalesced with the Liberals, leading to the two-party system becoming a three-party one at Westminster.
The years of Labour government, 1997-2010, should have concentrated the minds of Tory activists and MPs. It should have taught them that they command the support of only a minority of the electorate, that the more Tory they are, the smaller that minority, and that to win and retain power, they must appeal beyond their natural diehard support. David Cameron understood this; many in his party didn’t. This didn’t happen.
Having discovered the pleasures of in-fighting during the last years of Thatcher and throughout John Major’s time as prime minister, the Tories have continued to indulge in acrimonious disputes, plots against the leadership and insubordination. Last night, about half the parliamentary party will have rebelled against the Prime Minister’s Equal Marriage Bill – a futile enterprise , since the bill was backed by the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The measure itself is of little general importance. It affects few people directly and, like other social reforms, will soon be accepted by the majority with at worst a shrug.
More important have been the stories of plots against the leadership. These seem to have centred around the MP for Windsor, Adam Afriyie, a man of whom almost nobody outside Westminster or his own constituency had heard of a couple of weeks ago. The plot has no chance of succeeding – not at least with this stalking-horse candidate – but it is an indication of the resentment and dislike with which so many Tory MPs view their leader. The old gag about the chaps on the other side of the gangway being your opponents, while your enemies are behind you is proved true yet again.
That Cameron is considerably more popular than his party is irrelevant to the zealots on his back-benches. They continue to believe that what they call “true Tory policies” are needed to win the election. This is a delusion. An ideologically “pure” Tory party would be lucky to get 30 per cent of the vote in a general election. Disraeli said that “the Conservative Party is a national party or it is nothing”; by a “national party” he meant one capable of appealing to members of all classes in all parts of the country. A national party today has to appeal to those who work in the public sector as well as those in the private one. Cameron realises this; his critics don’t.
Believing, mistakenly, that they are the natural party of government, the rebellious Tories hate the coalition, referring to their Liberal Democrat partners as “the Yellow Peril”. This too is madness, for the chances of the Conservatives winning an outright majority at the next general election are poor. But the truth is that many Tories appear happier in opposition, free of the responsibility of office, even if they are in opposition to their own party leader. Their opposition has not been entirely ineffective. Cameron has given them what many have demanded: the promise of a referendum on Europe. There is no sign that this has appeased them. It may even have sharpened their appetite.
Now a real crisis looming is for the coalition, and it is one to which the Tory rebels are looking forward eagerly. There will be a by-election at Eastleigh following the resignation of Chris Huhne. Eastleigh was for a long time a safe Tory seat, until the Liberal Democrats won it at a by-election in 1994. Huhne’s majority in 2010 was just under 4,000. Tory activists there have been preparing for a contest since Huhne’s troubles began more than a year ago. So we are going to see the coalition parties going at each other hammer-and-tongs in what is likely to be a nasty little election. In a sensible world, the Conservatives would stand aside and give the Liberal Democrat a free run, even backing him or her against a Ukip candidate. This would preserve the coalition – even if some who voted for Huhne defected or stayed at home, and Ukip took the seat.
This isn’t going to happen, even if, privately, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg might want it to. Too many Tories want to take revenge on the Lib Dems for having blocked boundary changes that were expected to benefit the Tories. Yet if the Eastleigh election turns out to be as bitter as expected, it is difficult to see how the coalition can stagger on for another two years. It might be in the interest of the Lib Dems to walk away, saying it has, sadly, proved impossible to work with the Tory party. That would leave Cameron running a minority government. He might then be faced in the Commons with a vote of no confidence, and if he was defeated, this would precipitate a general election, which Labour would probably win. That might have interesting consequences for our referendum here; it would also mean no real renegotiation of the UK’s position in the EU and no referendum on Europe.
There’s an old proverb about biting off your nose to spite your face. A great many Tory MPs and activists seem not only happy, but positively eager, to do just that. They could then elect a new leader after their own heart, a leader who would have no chance of winning a general election – not even if we in Scotland had removed ourselves from the United Kingdom. “Quem deus vult perdere, prius dementat” – “whom the god wishes to destroy, he first makes mad” – is another old proverb, this time a Roman one. Quite so.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West