The Tories were long perceived as the natural party of Government. And there was a lot of truth in that, given they were in power for 57 years in the 20th century and 35 of the latter 50. Apart from the Blair years, Labour seemed to have a turn every so often before that natural order prevailed.
Much of that was because they were perceived as forswearing ideology and concentrating simply on raw political power. Befitting their name, they were conservative, rejecting risk to win a reputation as the supposed safe political hands required in a crisis, especially an economic one.
It was for that reason that the business community supported them and why many joined them for a career in politics. Running the country was the order of the day, not promoting a political dogma. They could be ruthless towards members who threatened that orthodoxy and the power that went with it, as many found to their cost.
They were perceived though as having an air of competence which was also why many voters turned to them as challenges faced the nation from within or without. Baldwin and Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher all benefitted from that. None of them inspired me and I decry their ideologies, especially of Thatcher. That said, they and their Cabinets possessed what are called political “big beasts” and their party was a formidable machine. A great deal of the perception was far from the reality but mythology matters in politics and it certainly benefitted the Tories.
For sure, they had their challenges, whether economic or political, but the party had ballast and a self-righting mechanism, or so it seemed. If a leader failed or faltered, others were there to take the helm. After Suez, out went Eden, swiftly removed before the brand was damaged and, likewise, Thatcher was ousted when the poll tax folly was shown for the ideological nonsense it had always been. Macmillan and Major, respectively, were eased in to continue the old order, albeit with a new face.
But, no more. The Conservative conference has shown not just a Government but a party in meltdown, unsure what it’s for or where it’s going. A decent speech from May yesterday was belied before it started by wider Government actions and policies. It is a party riven from top to bottom, not just in local branches but the Cabinet. Many members seem driven by a new crazed zealotry, not the ruthless pragmatism of old. And their leader is devoid of authority, let alone ability.
A once-powerful political party is now shorn of a membership, even one that was predominately blue-rinsed in many parts. Instead it’s been taken over by a group of ageing “Little Englanders” dreaming of a new age of empire and entirely unrepresentative of huge swathes of the country.
One-Nation Toryism – diminished since Thatcher – is now well and truly buried. No wonder the likes of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine are waspish in their comments, and Thatcher, never mind Churchill, must be birling in her grave.
The Prime Minister is now not just dysfunctional but delusional, making even the hapless Eden seem statesmanlike. Running around the country, demanding loyalty for her Chequers plan in the national interest was a sign of desperation not leadership, evidencing a cretinous position in a fight with friends and allies, and the very people she needs to strike a deal with.
It wasn’t simply hypocritical but absurd to lecture Corbyn and the SNP about the need to stand behind her Chequers deal, when many if not most in her own Government, let alone party, repudiate it. Her lack of authority and diminished stature was displayed for all to see when Boris Johnson openly mocked her with footage of him running through wheat fields. That before he even got to the conference hall, where he implied almost criminality in her supposed masterplan.
No previous Tory leader would have or could have stood such insolence. Past Tory PMs would have instantly struck down the insubordination but mutiny is now aboard the entire party and many of the faithful lapped up her savaging and, what’s worse, mocking. A leader in office, not in power.
Nor is she surrounded by a stellar cast of talent. Even supposed safe hands like Jeremy Hunt, with an undeserved reputation for competency given the shambles that is the health service in England, have been shown to be abject duds. He was supposed to bring some class and competence to the Foreign Secretary’s position, instead his comparison of the EU with the Soviet Union was a gargantuan folly reminiscent of his predecessor.
Conferences are no longer just for the assembled faithful but a much wider audience. That includes not just the public in this country but governments beyond. It’s one thing denouncing Labour or the SNP, quite another countries that you need to deal with. Yet Hunt wasn’t alone in displaying a lack of tact, never mind diplomacy, towards Europe. Meanwhile Boris Johnson remains the conference darling despite being exposed on a daily basis for the fool and fraud that he is.
There seems no way out for the Tory Party. The lunatic fringe has become the mainstream, preferring ideology to power, willing to sacrifice, not just office but the country for their political dogma. A huge internal bloodletting there must be.
But they’re riding for a spectacular fall. Trust and perception are long in the building but can be swiftly lost. It’s not just the disunity that will do for them, they’ve also lost their image of competence, even if it was often viewed as cold and callous. Nor do they have any great ability in their ranks or even waiting in the wings and, as for respect in the business community, they can forget it.
They may still win an election but it’ll be through the failure of the opposition. Much of what was their core electorate is aghast with ABC1s seeing their incomes and futures threatened. These are turbulent times in UK politics but the Tories certainly can’t be viewed as the natural party of Government any more.