Kenny MacAskill: Tory civil war worse than SNP fight that saw me expelled

Theresa May and Boris Johnson at a Cabinet meeting before he resigned over her Brexit plan (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty)
Theresa May and Boris Johnson at a Cabinet meeting before he resigned over her Brexit plan (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty)
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All political parties are coalitions encompassing a wide range of views and maximising membership, otherwise they’d be some doctrinaire cult. However, there’s usually enough of an agreed consensus to hold everyone together.

After all, there are few that agree with absolutely everything that their party stands for, whether it’s on the left, right or centre and wherever it stands on major constitutional issues. But, they join as a declaration of faith for the general principles. On many specific matters, they’ll simply disagree and if they become fundamental points of principle, then they’ll leave.

I’m a case in point, joining the SNP many years ago for the general support for independence even if I disagreed with the then positioning of the party and with some particular policies.

On many aspects, it’s the party that’s changed over the years rather than me and on other issues I’ve just kept my powder dry or expressed concerns in private. There are still policies I disagree with but I’ve retained my membership card through general support for the cause.

None of that’s a problem unless you hold elected office where discipline is not just expected but required. The oft-called-for parliament of independents would be anarchic and the discipline that goes with groups is essential. Derided they may be, but political parties are absolutely essential for democracy.

Even there though, latitude is given and not just on conscience issues that all parties allow for. Local pressures and particular views can oft times be accommodated, though not always. Slack, for example within the SNP, was always given to MSP and MPs from the north on some social issues. Others facing particular pressures for whatever personal or political reason were also sought to be assisted. Other parties do likewise.

But, once in a leadership role and most certainly when in government, then discipline and an acceptance of agreed policy is necessary. There were government policies I was never quite comfortable with when I sat in Cabinet. However, the privilege of holding high office and the need for collective responsibility saw me hold my tongue.

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Since demitting office, I’ve indulged myself in this column and elsewhere in being able to speak my mind whether on votes for prisoners or drug policy. When I was in government, they were a distraction or for another day in my view, not anywhere near a resignation issue even if I could feel uncomfortable with aspects. The need for unity and the opportunity to change other areas offset any qualms or doubts. Now that I’m a private citizen and simple party member, I’m no longer constrained in any way.

Yet this system is all breaking down for Theresa May as her Cabinet and Government fall apart and then fall upon themselves. This is the end game for the Prime Minister and it’s not going to end well for her and probably for all of us in the country. It’s only a matter of time before she’s pushed or jumps but the end is nigh.

Discipline has broken down, disrespect for her and disloyalty to her evident and the animus within the Tory group for each other palpable. It’s bad enough having senior members publicly rebuke her but even worse is the obvious contempt in which they hold her. Being lampooned by the buffoon Boris Johnson was the very nadir, but the fact that it happened and was laughed at by many is terminal.

Her authority – fragile after the lamentable election performance last year – has evaporated as quickly as any supposed strategy on Brexit. And not just among those who have walked from her Cabinet and who scorn her without a hint of shame for what they previously endorsed. When a third of your Ministers meet the night before a crucial Cabinet for a very public pre-meeting over pizza, then frankly your authority and you are toast.

So far, what has kept the Tories together has been the extent of the division with no obvious successor given the deep split on Brexit. Allied to that has been the fear of forcing an election and perhaps letting in a Corbyn-led Government. But, none of those will be able to sustain her for long.

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Despite the Tories’ lamentable performance on almost every aspect of governmental life, they still hold a clear lead over Labour. That means the fear any individual MPs may have of losing their seat is lessened and, in any event, the focus moves from the enemy without to the enemy within.

For another old political adage is that the opposition is across from you, but the enemy behind you. Never has that been shown more starkly than in the current Tory Party. The venom towards the likes of Anna Soubry from Brexiteers has been truly poisonous and the contempt that she and others like Dominic Grieve spit out over supposed colleagues obvious to all. It’s simply not sustainable and sooner rather than later will result in the fratricide that’ll bring May down.

I’ve been through civil wars in my own party many years ago. You lose focus on the formal opposition and concentrate on the internal enemy. The early 80s saw SNP splits and myself and others, including the former First Minister, and current Environment Secretary, expelled. For months and indeed several years that dominated and defined priorities and debate. Opposition parties and other issues could wait, what mattered was winning within the party. That transcended everything and anything and so it has become within the Tories. Paying back May for her sins and winning internally is more important than preserving the Union, as warned by John Major, or even party unity. Everything else can wait.

The Tory group has zealots prepared to damage the Government irrevocably but they won’t care, as that’s where they see the real battle and enemy. Hell mend them, I say, but God help us given the seriousness of the situation and the positions they hold.