It is not the nature of modern politicos, especially on a roll, to have a slave whispering that admonition in their ear.
Even so, the faithful at ConservativeHome are showing squeamish signs at the unbridled triumphalism of Eric Pickles.
Be careful what you wish for: you may get it!
One of the glories of the democratic system is that the fruits of victorious success contain the seeds of inevitable future defeat. Those seats, at the extreme margins of a party’s reach, won this year, will have to be defended in four years’ time. Those candidates scrabbled together to put names in the frame turn out to be less-than-reliable, less-than-motivated, less an asset to the party. Who now honours the political achievements of Haringey’s former Councillor, the Tory Jimmy Greaves?
Another thing: when the defeat comes, the humiliated tend to blame their own side for “getting it wrong”. At Westminster, too, grievances fester. Even when all the jobs in government have been assigned, many feel undervalued in their appointments, and there are still 250 or more backbenchers left off the team sheet. There are 32 well-fed faces on the Tory’s shadow cabinet page, and even that excludes some bods with high opinions of themselves (John Redwood, where art thou?): the 1975 Act allows pay and recognition for only 22 Cabinet members.
Meanwhile, an incumbent government has only so much (and, at the moment, very little indeed) largesse to spread across the local demands for aid and assistance. Getting elected means a need to be seen to be “doing something”: that, and the need for memorials to local egos (“the Councillor Phil Potts Public Urinal”) cost money. And Whitehall is suddenly having to juggle endless demands from “our” people.
The curse of the dead fish
Just as a fish rots from the head, so an incumbent political party decays from the centre.
The history books inevitably describe this (as with Labour in 1950-51 and the Tories in the mid-90s) as “tiredness”. The verve, the initiative, the hunger for radical change has gone, crushed by the routine and pressures of keeping the show on the road. So Macmillan had his “Events, dear boy, events” moment and Callaghan his “Crisis? What crisis?”
Of course, it helps to come to power with a clear agenda, the trumpet-blast of “a programme for government”. Moltke’s axiom applies as much to politics, as to military strategy: no plan can survive contact with the enemy. The enemy is not any Opposition party: it is Macmillan’s “events”, complicated by the revealed incompetence in office of those faces that looked so promising on the stump.
Equally, few Cabinets survive more than a few months, even weeks, of interaction with those “events”. Any government, every government, treads warily for banana skins and egg-shells. Those fresh-faces, briefly enjoying their moment of fame, suddenly discover they are the target of intrusive Press enquiry. Out of the closet slither the skeletons, the past (and present) vengeful lovers, the News of the Screws, the unexplained and inexplicable cheque, the dodgy dealing, the loose mouth, the equivocations … Those pesky bloggers won’t go away: they will continue, not as single Draperesque spies, but in vast and inflamed battalions, from the other side.
One for heir, one for spare
The classic recipe for upper-class reproduction seems to apply to the present Tory leadership. We are repeatedly reminded of some “achievement” [ahem!] by Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London, with the appended observation that it renders him a promising candidate to replace David Cameron. Unhappy is the political party with leadership contenders.
Any political party is a coalition: it is something of a continuing miracle that Labour, the miscegenation of socialist theory and trade-union pragmatism, survives intact from generation to generation. “New Labour”, that curious aperturismo e il uomo di Worcester, already is reverting to type, shuffling left to a more defensible position.
At least Labour has that ideological base from which to rebuild. Already, the intellectual powerhouses (like Demos) are out on recconoitre, literally “re-knowing”, the way ahead. One of the best foundations for such renewal is a bust, broken, defeated, discarded manifesto. Meanwhile, a governing party is held to ransom by its manifesto, carefully contrived to paper over all cracks and potential schisms: woe betide any government detected by its ultras in inevitable compromise and back-sliding.
Every Conservative government of Malcolm’s lifetime has been cleft asunder. Once upon a time there was the poisonous legacy of appeasement which dogged the likes of Rab Butler. This compounded with the reputation of having had “a good war” (it really didn’t matter which one). On that basis alone, lines were drawn (and became significant, for example, when the issue was trusting the word of John Profumo, who did have a “good war”).
The Tory Party has never , since the Second World War, refined its “world-view” nor its essential economic posture. Together, these differences are, historically, far more significant than the ritual sacrifice of a Tory Home Office spokesperson thrown to the behatted, hanging-and-flogging ladies at Annual Conference. We can confidently predict that this spectacle would recur, after a successful General Election, partly over scare stories about rising crime, partly over the Judiciary implementing Human Rights legislation, but also over the issues of hunting, and the Mad Nad fundamentalist demand to restrict abortion. We may even see the revival of Section 28.
First there was the running conflict (found in all Parties) between the old Empire men and a few “realists”. This was précised by Dean Acheson’s caustic remark in 1962:
Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.
So we were regaled by the notion of Britain’s interests “east of Suez”. This mental illness is not unique to Tories, but continued to afflict the likes of Wilson and Blair. The ailment caused the resignation of Chris Mayhew, as Minister for the Navy, in 1966, who likened Britain’s defence to a Hindu cow: neither fed properly nor put out of its misery. What exacerbated the problem for the Tories was endless friction not just between the old Empire men and the new “realists”, but also between the new factions of Atlanticists versus Europeans. Thus the officer-class phalanx on the Tory back-benches ranted against John Thorneycroft’s announcement to the Commons (17 Dec 1962), when the Kennedy administration cancelled the Skybolt programme, so aborting the whole UK nuclear defence plan.
Almost seamlessly this segued into the split over Europe, which persists to the present day. With only the Irish re-run in the way, the Treaty could come to the Commons this autumn. That would suit Cameron to a degree, though his “pledge” to a referendum has consistently been ambiguous. It has also been weasel-worded, knowing the Europhobes will never be denied their raw meat. Somehow they will persist until a referendum of sorts is back onto the Tory agenda. Either way that is bad for Cameron. Were the referendum to be conceded, it is hard to see the UK voting for any pro-Europe formula. At which point the baby throws all the toys out of the pram: the fall-out in the City and the CBI thereof will be immense. Meanwhile, relations with Europe are thoroughly poisoned.
That leaves the economic issue. Thatcher had her “wets”, Major his “bastards”. Cameron has his loony libertarians. Yet, no how, no way can the Treasury extricate itself from dirigisme over the next few years. Since it is not going to happen instanter, until the dust has settled, a major Bill on financial regulation is inevitable in the next Parliament. Who else gets a bail-out? Does the Bank of England get re-nationalised? Who runs the regulation? How are executive salaries (and bonuses) to be settled? Ummm…
And without finance, there isn’t much left of British entrepreneurial capitalism.
It’s too early for the laurel wreaths and triumphal chariots to be readied.
It’s not just Eric Pickles who needs telling that.