Is Cameron's super-objective to neuter Labour and simultaneously wipe out the Liberal Democrats?
There is an article in today’s Observer on the ‘Fight for the Soul of the Conservative Party’ which attempts to summarise a few recent skirmishes between Whig-Tory factions within the Conservative Party and the Lib-Con divisions within the Coalition.
His Grace’s post is not so much a fisk of Toby Helm (though it occasionally is), as a fisk of the divergent views and often un-sourced opinions he synthesises:
When veteran Tory MP Bill Cash rises to his feet in the House of Commons on Tuesday, it will seem to many older MPs like a flashback to a bygone era.
Just as he did in the early 1990s, during the passage of the Maastricht treaty, Cash will rail against a Conservative government that he believes is selling British sovereignty down the river.
Ah, the good old days. But it must be observed that we do not today have a Conservative government: it is a coalition. As the Prime Minister has said, that necessitates compromise. Whilst it is undoubtedly justifiable to rail against ‘selling British sovereignty down the river’, if that is what a majority in the Commons votes for…
During those epic parliamentary battles that tore the Tories apart 20 years ago, the then prime minister, John Major, famously dismissed the fanatical Eurosceptic Cash and his rebel friends from the right as members of a lunatic fringe. He once described them as "three apples short of a picnic" – by which he meant close to insane.
Were they not also ‘the bastards’? Doubtless a few whips have called them worse. One can only imagine the rebels’ schadenfreude in the fall of Maastricht whips like Derek Conway and his spiritual successor in the dark arts, Andrew Mackay. Funny, one never heard or hears of the ‘swivel-eyed’ left of the Party, or of ‘fanatical Europhiles’, or of a Clarke-Gummer-Maude ‘lunatic fringe’. And yet it is their instincts on the EU and the euro which have consistently proved to have been flawed and ill-judged. Far from being ‘three apples short of a picnic’ and ‘close to insane’, the ‘fanatical Eurosceptic Cash and his rebel friends from the right’ have shown themselves to have been reasoned and right. The Coalition ignores them at the nation’s peril.
There are some in David Cameron's inner circle who, even today, adopt a similarly dismissive attitude to the Eurosceptic right. "Europe is a dead issue," they say. Since the May general election, they have been proved largely right. Europe – the subject that destroyed the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Major – has failed, so far, to rear its head.
Europe is only a ‘dead issue’ because those who understand and are concerned about the many-headed euro-beast have been awed by the depth, breadth and pace of the reforms in education and welfare, and the Coalition’s unswerving prioritisation of the national debt and the budget deficit crises. As long as people like self-confessed ‘neocon’ Michael Gove and ‘Maastricht rebel’ Iain Duncan Smith are in the Cabinet, and are not frustrated too much in their departmental revolutions, there is much cause for rejoicing in the Tory heartlands.
This week, however – against the background of a crucial byelection in Oldham East and Saddleworth that has raised questions about just how close David Cameron intends to bind the Tories to the pro-EU Lib Dems in future – all that could change.
And it would do no harm: in politics, timing is all.
Tuesday's debate on the European Union bill is being seen by the right of the Tory party as the starting point for a fightback – the opportunity to begin a defence of true Conservative values.
A little hyperbolic and dramatic: ‘true Conservative values’ are what all Conservatives would profess to be fighting for. The disagreements are concerned with priority and praxis: the Prime Minister has put the economy, education and welfare reform at the heart of his programme for government. It is crass to dismiss this, as Toby Helm does, in order to caricature the debate as a fight between good and evil.
The issues to be debated on Europe are hugely important in themselves, they say. Conservative MPs of all ages are angry that the bill fails to deliver proper safeguards against future transfers of sovereignty to Brussels, as were promised in the Conservative election manifesto. "It is a disgrace. This bill does not do what it says on the tin," says one enraged sceptic.
The Bill was always about seeming: it was mood music designed more for public consumption during a general election campaign than for the forensic minds of Bill Cash and other mainstream Conservatives. While we may endlessly debate over the outcome of the 2010 General Election and the extent to which the strategy worked, it must be observed that we do at least have a Conservative-led government, albeit with one arm tied behind its back.
But their concerns run far wider and deeper. Unease is being fuelled by a growing belief in the Conservative party that a series of other fundamental Tory principles are being watered down in a similar way – just to appease Nick Clegg's party.
Yes. It is called co - al - ition: it involves compromise and necessitates diplomacy. But the appeasement is not so much to ‘Nick Clegg’s Party’ (they were completely disregarded over tuition fees); it is to the person of Nick Clegg himself. For, unlike poor, deluded Vince Cable, Mr Clegg really could bring the Government down. And that would precipitate an immediate general election, with a likely Labour victory or Lib-Lab pact after Nick Clegg had been replaced by someone more disposed to Ed Miliband and his even newer New Labour.
As well as Europe, Cash cites the coalition's liberal approach to criminal justice, its stance on the Human Rights Act and a decision to give prisoners voting rights as areas where the very essence of Conservatism is being lost in deals with Lib Dems.
You missed the 50p income tax rate and support for marriage within the tax system. But, yes, these are all of huge concern. Yet it must be observed that this loss of ‘the very essence of Conservatism’ is nothing to do with being in coalition with the LibDems: it unavoidably comes with the liberal instincts of Kenneth Clark and the pro-ECHR pathology of Dominic Grieve. Mr Clarke is well known for his ‘inner liberal’ views, and Mr Grieve for his past threats to resign should there be any move either to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights or to replace it with a British ‘Bill of Rights’ (as though we didn’t already have one). The latter policy was kicked into the long grass (or aborted) way before the Coalition was conceived.
It is part of what he calls "a silent revolution" being pushed through by Cameron and Clegg – one that young Tory MPs are being forced by their whips to back against their will "in defiance of the Conservative manifesto" on which they went to the country only eight months ago.
One could replace ‘in defiance of the Conservative manifesto’ with ‘in accordance with the realities of coalition government’. In co-regency, no faction can expect to get everything it wants. The LibDems obviously are not, and neither is the Conservative mainstream. Coalition demands compromise, even against manifesto commitments. This is an argument against PR, AV and any other voting system which is likely to lead to more coalitions. It is ultimately the people who are further alienated as they have no say at all over the final manifesto for government: it is hatched in secret deals and thrashed out behind closed doors. And ‘young Tory MPs’ are forced by their whips to back nothing against their will, unless they surrender that will to vaulting ambition. Douglas Carswell cannot be coerced any more than Bill Cash: they are their own men, largely because they are politicians of conviction and principle.
Complaints are being raised from the predominantly right-of-centre Tory grass roots in the Conservative-supporting media. Last week Tim Montgomerie, editor of the website for Tory activists, ConservativeHome, wrote a piece for the Daily Mail under the headline "If Cameron keeps appeasing Clegg, he risks killing off the Tory party".
His Grace responded at length to Mr Montgomerie here.
In the Commons, the Tory whips have so far kept a lid on rightwing unrest. That is partly because the parliament is young and the right these days is a fairly disparate group. It is united by Euroscepticism – but the new intake is more socially liberal than the older generation and wary of teaming up with old-style traditionalists from the pre-Cameron era.
So even the ‘swivel-eyed Tory right’ has a swivel-eyed faction within it. Is there no end to Conservative denominations?
Even on Europe, rebellions have been limited since May. Just five MPs – Peter Bone, Douglas Carswell, Philip Hollobone, Andrew Percy and Mark Reckless – have rebelled in three significant EU votes since the election.
A total of 45 Tory MPs have done so at least once on the issue. Others such as Priti Patel, seen by the right as a likely supporter in future, have yet to break ranks at all.
Don’t you just love the terms ‘rebellion’ and ‘rebel’? Consider re-phrasing to: ‘Just five MPs have voted with mainstream Conservative opinion since the election.’ Perhaps Priti Patel has repented of her Referendum Party dalliance and now has an eye on the greasy pole. We shall see...
But for how long will the line be held? While many on the right are acutely worried about policy direction, they are even more incensed by talk of future electoral deals with the Lib Dems – an issue that has been brought into sharp focus by the Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection that will take place on Thursday.
As the Prime Minister said in a recent Daily Mail interview, politics isn’t fair. Kashif Ali in Oldham East and Saddleworth is being (gently) hung out to dry: his is a paper candidacy, despite appearances and speeches to the contrary. CCHQ only mobilised forces when ConservativeHome asked a few pointed questions. The sacrifice of Mr Ali is nothing new: candidates are frequently told not to focus on their own campaign but to assist a nearby key marginal ‘for the sake of the Party’. He will undoubtedly be rewarded for his loyalty: he is ‘exactly the sort of MP’ Mr Cameron wants to see in the House of Commons for the Conservative Party.
At a cabinet meeting before Christmas, Andrew Mitchell, the Tory international development secretary, argued that Conservatives should do everything in their power to help the Lib Dems win the seat, which fell vacant after Phil Woolas, the former Labour immigration minister, was found guilty of lying about the Lib Dem runner-up.
Cabinet members, aware of the need to bolster the Lib Dems as their poll ratings plunged, nodded in agreement and the prime minister expressed gratitude to Mitchell for his intervention.
His Grace would very much like to know who has breached collective Cabinet confidentiality with this disclosure: has it been authenticated or manufactured to bolster the ‘thus far and no further’ argument? That aside, it beggars belief that intelligent and discerning politicos appear (or pretend to appear) not to understand the political realities. Of course it is in the Conservative Party’s interest to ‘bolster the LibDems’ while they are a coalition partner. If you’re not bolstering them, you’re undermining them. It is fatuous to pretend that a minority Conservative government could implement the (very Tory) reforms presently being undertaken. His Grace has said this before, but it merits repeating: if addressing the budget deficit, repaying the national debt, and reforms in health and education are the only achievements of the Cameron premiership, he will still go down in history as a ‘great, reforming prime minister’.
If there is to be fiscal discipline, fairness and social justice, there must be collective enthusiasm, individual responsibility and reward for industry. David Cameron is abolishing entrenched, top-down bureaucratic services, and filling the void with the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurial vision. The poor we will always have with us, but henceforth only the deserving poor will receive support from the state. He wants the British people to love their country because ‘we’re all in this together’.
David Cameron sees a fusion in the spiritual, moral, political, and economic crises facing the nation: they can be addressed separately, but they are different descriptions of the same overall crisis. His ‘broken society’ theme stems from the same aversion as Margaret Thatcher had to the state’s interference in the exercising of individual free will. For her, morality lay in choosing between feasible alternatives. A moral being is one who exercises his own judgment in choice, on matters great and small, bearing in mind their moral dimension, i.e., right and wrong. If there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose. For as long as the LibDems are content to support such a programme, we should be thankful to God.
Later Cameron wished the Lib Dems well in Oldham, sparking more fears among Tories of a "soft" electoral pact in which the Conservatives would in future put up "gesture" candidates in certain seats but not fight them hard to win. The reaction in the party was one of shock and disbelief.
Montgomerie raised the alarm in no uncertain terms, warning that some around Cameron were talking of electoral pacts. "There are influential people, close to David Cameron," he wrote, "who believe that today's coalition government should become a permanent alliance between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats."
Policy deals with Lib Dems were one thing, but pacts quite another. "Tory MPs and activists are ready to swallow these concessions as temporary medicine. But the idea that this emergency cohabitation becomes a marriage enrages them."
Francis Maude may be one of ‘influential people close to David Cameron’. But for every Francis Maude there is a Bernard Jenkin, and in such relational chemistry a significant amount of ill-feeling and distrust.
In forging a government in the national interest – which was the grown-up thing to do – there is no reason at all why one may not have Liberal Democrat voices to help shape the agenda. The reality is that there are many Conservative-minded Liberal Democrats and quite a few more Liberal-Democrat-minded Conservatives: the Coalition is the Orange Book made incarnate. Should they manage to hold it together, they could keep Labour’s Socialism at bay for a generation, if not eradicate it forever.
Is not that glorious objective worth a little short-term compromise?
Is David Cameron actually being strategically brilliant and gloriously visionary by forging a coalition which can simultaneously neuter Socialism and wipe out the Liberal Democrats as any meaningful or credible political threat?
And then resoundingly win the 2015 general election with a convincing majority?
Shh... not so loud.
If we examine David Cameron’s great vision, his political raison d’etre, his principal policy emphasis since he became Party leader – that of ‘Progressive’, ‘One Nation’ or ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism – there is no reason at all why he may not secure a parliamentary majority with each Bill that comes before the House of Commons. Of course there are divergences in the policy details, but liberal philosophy meets a distinct strand of conservative philosophy at the point of individual liberty.
And we are at a time of such a Conservative and Liberal expression and understanding of the role of the individual that legislation would be protected from extremist expressions: the freedom of the individual is tempered by his or her responsibility to society, even if, at the moment, society has got the better of the individual. The poor need to hear the message of personal responsibility and self-reliance, the optimistic assurance that if they try – as they must – they will make it.
The Coalition is intent on empowering communities (the Hannan/Carswell ‘localism’ agenda) because the sense of political community is intrinsic to people’s sense of the need for social community. The narrative focus is on welfare, family breakdown and ‘social justice’ in the context of traditional conservative themes like low taxation and the small state. Proponents of Compassionate Conservatism aver that social problems are better solved through cooperation with private companies, charities and religious institutions rather than directly through government departments.
By making Roman Catholic Iain Duncan Smith the Minister for Social Justice, the Anglican Prime Minister (with the tacit support of atheist Nick Clegg) has shown himself to be concerned with the moral and spiritual health of the nation just as much as Margaret Thatcher was concerned with its economic health: economic reality and moral concerns are no longer in conflict. Thus David Cameron talks not only of economic recession but of ‘social recession’ and ‘moral failure’.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is both liberal and democratic: his plans for free schools are both liberal and democratic; his plans for a ‘pupil premium’ for the most challenging pupils are both liberal and democratic; his desire to redistribute NHS funding to the areas with the lowest life expectancy is both liberal and democratic. His opposition to further taxes on jobs is both liberal and democratic; his desire for lower personal taxation is both liberal and democratic; his opposition to ID cards is both liberal and democratic. And what liberal and democrat could possibly resile from the Conservatives’ proposed reforms to Parliament – that of granting the electorate the right to recall their MP, and petition for a parliamentary debate?
All of these policies are intrinsic to and consistent with a programme of Compassionate Conservatism for they are all concerned with theo-political matters of social justice and the imperative of loving one’s neighbour.
And loving does not demand liking.
But loving does demand engagement, understanding and tolerance of those whose personality we do not like or of whose worldview and beliefs we disapprove.
The Prime Minister embodies a very Anglican compromise: it does not seek to polarise by setting one moral or political philosophy over another; it seeks consensus in accordance with its traditional via media, or, in the words of the preface to the 1662 Prayer Book, ‘to keep the mean between the two extremes’.
Mark Pritchard, a leading member of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, also tore into what he called the "purple plotters", those close to Cameron and Clegg who want to blend permanently the parties' colours in some form of merger.
Blend the parties’ colours? We have to go to Philip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’ philosophy to get purple. Blue and orange make green. And such is the Conservative Party’s new logo. But ‘green plotters’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it: it’s not alliterative, and we already obviously have a green party, so there would be much confusion. So, purple it is. Except that purple is UKIP’s colour. O dear…
"There are fundamentalists among them who are this very moment straining their political sinews in a misguided attempt to try to supplant the very heart and soul of the Conservative party itself – a clumsy attempt to try to deconstruct the most successful political party in British history," he said.
Thursday's by-election result will have a huge bearing on the mood inside the Tory party. What many on the Tory right fear is that if the Liberal Democrats poll badly, perhaps coming third, then Cameron will feel under even greater pressure to offer still more concessions to Nick Clegg in order to bolster his position and keep the coalition firm.
And if the Tories come a close second to Labour, questions could be asked by Conservatives about how much better they could have done had they fought the seat hard rather than backing off against the Lib Dems.
It’s nice to see the Tory-left categorised as ‘fundamentalists’: it is all so often a term associated with the ‘swivel-eyed right’. Of course Europhiles are fundamentalists: they adhere to their beliefs and propagate their creed irrespective of experience and empirical evidence.
Thursday’s by-election result will no more significant than any other by-election result: the electorate invariably ‘punishes’ the incumbent government with a protest slap. Labour will almost certainly win, despite the Woolas fiasco and the Miliband vacuity; and the LibDems will come second. But have no doubt that No10 has prepared the words for whatever outcome.
Of course, if the good people of Oldham East and Saddleworth were to get to know that the last thing the Government want is a Tory victory…
As MPs prepare to return to parliament tomorrow after the Christmas break, there are signs that the right is beginning to become more and more vocal in its criticism of the coalition.
Last week Tory MP Bernard Jenkin who, like Cash, is appalled by the government's approach to Europe, led an astonishing attack on what he called the coalition's "botched" bonfire of the quangos.
Speaking in his role as chairman of the powerful Commons public administration select committee, which issued a report on the subject, Jenkin savaged Francis Maude, the Tory cabinet office minister in charge of scrapping quangos, saying he had rushed and mismanaged the whole process. "This was a fantastic opportunity to help build the big society and save money at the same time but it has been botched," he said. While select committee chairmen have a licence to criticise, his decision to rip into a member of the cabinet from his own party in such a way took many by surprise.
Dealt with above. His Grace likes Mr Jenkin very much indeed. Nice chap. Very.
MPs from the Tory right are restive and also determined. They say the very future of the Conservative party is at stake as efforts are made to keep the coalition on track.
While members of Cameron's inner circle lay plans to lock the Conservatives into ever closer bonds with the Lib Dems, they want the party to reassert its independence and its traditional values. Rebellions in parliament on Europe and votes for prisoners are worrying the whips.
His Grace refers his readers and communicants to the answer he gave some moments ago.
"It is not a happy party at the moment. There are two camps," said one prominent source in the party. "There are those around Cameron who believe we have not changed enough – and the rest of us who believe we have changed too much."
Ah, ‘twas ever thus.