Tory MPs like to congratulate themselves as the most sophisticated – and duplicitous – electorate in the world, deftly knifing or sparing the likes of Thatcher, Major, IDS, Howard, May, and Truss over the years.
If they were executing a cunning plan, it might have been designed by Baldrick, since in IDS, Johnson and Truss, it has produced dud leaders which the parliamentary party has ultimately felt the need to wipe off their shoes.
There are two explanations for the failure of MPs’ to get it right of late. The first is that they are no longer in full control of the process. Since William Hague’s reform of the party constitution at the turn of the century, unelected party members have had the ultimate choice of leader from a shortlist drawn up by MPs.
The second reason hinges on principle rather than technicality. The Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe declared in the early 1950s that “Loyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon”. That is no longer true, if it ever was. Red Wall, One Nation, Blue Chip, ERG, Leave and Remain factions within the party delight in denouncing and obstructing each other. The “herd instinct”, as Boris Johnson contemptuously called it, used to be to rally round the leader until a change became unavoidable. Today the main calculation seems to be whether keeping a leader in place is good or bad for each individual’s immediate prospects, never mind the national interest.
Much has been made of left-wing entryism in the Labour party, dramatized by successive leaders’ battles with Militant and Momentum, and culminating in Jeremy Corbyn’s destructive party leadership. Since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party has undergone a similar infiltration by extremists – radical, free market, small state libertarians with little respect for the Conservative Party’s traditional King, Country, and Allies centrism. The process has been more insidious in the Tory party because the insurgents have never organised externally, preferring to stay in the bosom of the family.
For three decades the Conservative Party has bent over backwards to accommodate right-wingers and Eurosceptics and it has now largely been taken over by them. The fear, most clearly pre-occupying David Cameron, was that they would splinter off and split the vote on the right. That’s why he acceded to Nigel Farage’s campaign for a referendum. He thought he could manage it and preserve the party as a broad church. It turns out he was wrong on both counts.
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The zero-sum approach to internal party politics, rejecting compromise, was manifest in the drive for Brexit, to defenestrate Theresa May and to install Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Although these ploys would appear to have malfunctioned and brought no benefit to the nation, the hardliners have not given up. That is why there is a campaign to reinstall Boris Johnston as Prime Minister, months after MPs kicked him out in disgrace. For serial lying, partying during lockdown and disrespectful treatment of colleagues.
So where does this leadership contest leave each Conservative MP? Their first calculation must be whether to back Johnson or not. A handful of MPs have said they will jump ship if he returns as captain, and more have signed up for other candidates than are backing him, but Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ben Wallace say they are inclining his way – so never mind the scandals, it must be OK to endorse him – right?
More importantly for any careerist – will Boris win? He’s never been liked by those who actually know him, and he is not a “House of Commons Man” but he is seen as a “winner” with a mandate. Passing the 100 nominations threshold looks like the hard part for him. After that he would only need twenty more MPs to vote for him, for a total of one third of the parliamentary party, to guarantee a place in the run-off. Given the chance it would be a major upset if self-selecting party members, perhaps joined by some Russian bots, do not opt for “Boris” over “Rishi”, “Penny” or anyone else.
Next comes the selfish calculation – what do I want out of it? Who is most likely to give me a job if I endorse them? Do I still believe that Trussonomics were right, just put into place badly? Do I want orthodox economics under Chancellor Hunt, already dubbed the return of austerity? Do I care about honesty and decency in public life or not really? What will help me get re-elected? Do I care? Am I feeling a lucky punk?
The direction of the party and its dire standing in the polls has driven some MPs to despair. A livid Sir Charles Walker vented his exasperation on television following the unseemly brawling in the division lobbies involving Conservative Ministers and members: “To be perfectly honest, this whole affair is inexcusable. It is a pitiful reflection on the Conservative Parliamentary Party at every level and it reflects really badly, obviously, on the government of the day.”
Sir Charles is not standing at the next election and is likely to be joined by a large number of Tory retirees. Behind Labour in the mid-term polls all year because of Johnson’s scandals, and plunging under Truss to new depths of an inconceivable 39 point deficit, many Conservatives believe they are bound to lose the next election. Some are fighting hard to reduce the number of potential casualties; others privately think a more radical approach is required. They believe it is vital that Johnson, Truss or Braverman, say, should stay in place to lead them to a smashing defeat so that they and their populist approach are discredited, and the moderates can get their party back.
Many in Labour felt the same during Corbyn’s leadership. In the end they got rid of Corbynism with the clean kill of general election defeat. Some depressed Conservatives now welcome the prospect of a schism and the carefully leaked reports that the UKIP forces are regrouping as a political party. They argue that such a party is more effective as an influencer of Tory policy than it would be as a stand-alone force.
Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer has slowly moved his party towards the centre ground – while keeping it together. Where the Tories were firing the preliminary salvoes in this leadership battle at their party conference, Labour was publicly united, as embodied in what has become the constructive chalk-and-cheese leadership partnership between Starmer and Angela Rayner. Presumably Therese Coffey will soon be out as Deputy Prime Minister, just like her predecessor Dominic Raab. Tory Prime Ministers seem to treat these roles as baubles for their friends rather than opportunities to serve.
Successful party leaders need to shape the opinions of their membership rather than follow their gut instincts. It is likely that a rebooted Sunak/Hunt/Mordaunt government will stabilize the economy, albeit in a very uncomfortable state. It is possible that they, unlike the populists, will try to reform the leadership process, so that MPs and not self-selecting members at least choose a Prime Minister.
But that is not a priority for now. First, they have to win this leadership contest and then win the next election. Both are tall orders.
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