Malcolm would welcome the source of the famous George Best anecdote, with that punch-line. Some claim it was from George himself.
But where did David Cameron’s woes begin?
Nick Robinson hasn’t — as far as Malcolm can see — offered his definitive analysis yet [UPDATE: see here]. That cannot be long in coming. His most recent utterance was Europe – That Tory row ‘made simple’, which took the tale back as far as last week. Which cannot be the authoritative version.
James Forsyth, in the Spectator and still pre-occupied exclusively with the Europe thing, went back only to last October:
Shortly before the Conservative party conference last year, the head of the Fresh Start Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs went in to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street. The group had heard that David Cameron might make his big Europe speech at the gathering and its head, Andrea Leadsom, wanted to set out what to ask for in any renegotiation.
When Leadsom returned from the meeting, her colleagues were desperate to know what the PM had said: which powers did he most want returned from the EU? What would be the centrepiece of his great diplomatic effort? All Leadsom could do was repeat what Cameron had told her: ‘I don’t like shopping lists.’
This sums up Cameron’s attitude towards this renegotiation: announcing it is enough for the time being. When he eventually did make his big Europe speech in January, it contained nothing as clear as a shopping list. There was lots of hifalutin’ language but painfully little detail.
Of the same parish (and the Speccie is about the best barometer of the local Tory weather), Alex Massie throws gay-marriage into the argument, and then takes it further:
Gay marriage has cost the party members in (I think) every constituency in Britain. That does not make it a bad policy but it demonstrates, again, that it is better to win the argument than to impose something of this sort upon the party and expect everyone to fall into line because the thought of Prime Minister Miliband is enough to trump all other concerns. There comes a point at which people simply say Sod it, I’ve had enough.
The bigger problem still, however, is that the Tory party increasingly does not look very much like Britain or, especially, England. Worse still, it frequently – and despite all the talk of modernisation – does not seem comfortable with modern England. This is, for sure, in part a feature of the conservative temperament but it does make it harder for the party to recruit new members and harder for it to retain existing members. It is caught in a cleft stick.
The single sex marriage Bill
One day, in retrospect, we may untangle why this became so important. At one level, Malcolm wonders if it is not a form of code, a catch-all for a whole series of gripes and grievances (see below).
The Church of England is no longer the Tory Party at prayer (which axiom the Catholic Herald once attributed to an anonymous 18th-century wag; though it seems more likely to be derived from the suffragist and Congregationalist Maude Royden, reported in the Times, 17 July 1917). We live in a secular (even aggressively so) society, where even the remaining Tories of the shires do not seem the most observant of worshippers. Yet this non-issue has become a cause of massive grief to vocal Tories.
It has to be more signifier than substance: a shibboleth to distinguish “us” from “them”. One to watch here is that pillar of the Tory Right, John Redwood. In February he blogged his view:
I have found this a difficult and divisive issue within my constituency and in the Conservative party. I came to it with no preconceptions.
As a modern Conservative I understand the wish to allow people to live their lives as they choose, as long as they do not harm others. There is a strong impulse to freedom in Conservatism which can pioneer desirable social reform. I suspect the reformers will win the vote today on the grounds that the law should not prevent same sex people marrying if they wish.
I also understand the strrength of feeling of many traditional Conservatives, who say Parliament should not change or reform long established institutions without good reason. They write to me to say they support civil partnership, but for religious, historical and legal reasons think marriage has to be defined as a relationship between a woman and a man. They do not write as bigots, though they are often criticised as such. They point out that the Conservative Manifesto of 2010 did not contain a pledge to change the law of marriage. They point out my personal Manifesto did not do so either.
He then voted “no”: the absence of a manifesto commitment being more important than freedom … which can pioneer desirable social reform.
Cameron: a poisonous, slippery individual
Malcolm has serially rehearsed the view of Ian King, published by The Sun (then still in the Labour camp), on the eve of Cameron becoming party leader:
Along with other financial journalists, I was unfortunate enough to have dealings with Cameron during the 1990s when he was PR man for Carlton, the world’s worst television company. And a poisonous, slippery individual he was, too.
Back then, Cameron was far from the smoothie he pretends to be now. He was a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton -which was nearly all of us. He loved humiliating people, including a colleague at ITV, who he would abuse publicly as “Bunter” just because the poor bloke was a few pounds overweight.
A recent Sun interview with Cameron generously called him a former Carlton “executive”. No, he wasn’t. He was a mouthpiece for that company’s charmless chairman, Michael Green, who operated him the way Keith Harris works Orville.
The financial press had one thing in common with Cameron — he hated us and we hated him.
If we had any doubts, Cameron insisted on proving King correct: the oft-stolen bicycle (with his papers in the following Lexus), hug a hoodie, the useless wind-generator on his Notting Hill house, the huskies …
Even then, there were rumblings:
What, many wondered yesterday, did the leader of a major political party hope to gain by dressing up in a duvet and driving a dog sled across the Arctic during the local election campaign? …
[Tory officials] fear Mr Cameron’s snowbound adventure will be seen as a photo-opportunity that will serve only to reinforce the impression that he is a nice chap without any firm policies.
That from the Telegraph, no less.
The Lisbon Treaty kerfuffle
Matters got serious with Cameron’s September, 2007, promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty; and his breaking of that commitment in 2009. Barry Legg, ex-MP, Iain Duncan Smith’s Chief Executive of the Tory Party, was incandescent:
The Tory leader stands condemned by his own words.
David Cameron’s future European policy is now incoherent, disingenuous and utterly unconvincing. This is a dark day for the Tory party, but a worse one for Britain.
That opinion did not stand on just one Legg. As recently as this January, Melissa Kite was regurgitating that, significantly again in the Spectator:
Tory MPs have fallen for David Cameron’s cast-iron pledges to hold a referendum before. So are they right in buying into his latest promise? …
Cameron has form on evolving his cast-iron pledges as he goes along. He promised in opposition to allow the British people a vote on the EU Constitution, then when it morphed into the Lisbon Treaty, and was ratified, he said rather legalistically that this meant a referendum was no longer possible or relevant. Then he promised that there would be no new ceding of powers to Brussels – and once the Coalition was formed that pledge was broken as well.
I hope the initial confidence being shown by eurosceptic Tories about his latest promise proves founded.
A life of grind
And, of course, the feet of clay were again spotted. Cameron, was called to order by his back-benchers, and had to up the ante with the nonsense of the draft bill on a 2017 referendum.
There are umpteen very obvious reasons why that one will fall short:
- it won’t get support outside the Tory party;
- it won’t get parliamentary time for the same reason;
- it attempts to bind a future government;
- it requires the Tories to win outright a General Election;
- it needs the co-operation and complicity of the other EU nations (all more than a bit pissed at Cameron’s inadequacies and posturings);
and — perhaps above all —
- it defies prime ministerial life-expectancy. Let’s assume that all the above “ifs” came to pass; and by Wednesday 1st November 2017 a mythical Prime Minister Cameron was launching his in/out EU referendum campaign. Cameron would, by then, have occupied Number 10 for 7 years, 5 months and 22 days (2732 days in total). That would make him the 15th longest-serving PM of all time, all the way back to Robert Walpole. Longer than Baldwin, nearly as long as Harold Wilson’s two sessions.
Cameron’s juvenile tendency
The starting gate for Malcolm’s ramblings here was Steve Richards in today’s Guardian. The headlines suggest this is quite an “end days” offering:
Cameron had the chance to defy the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ and remake his party. He failed
This week he’s been exposed. There was little thinking on what modern Conservatism might be like. Now he can only busk it
Richards starts with the Tory Party itself:
Relations between the leadership of the party and its activists are more strained and complex than at any point since the removal of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Focus on the policy trail rather than the Harold Macmillan-like emollient character of the prime minister and Cameron is implementing a radical agenda that should largely delight his activists. He has delivered an economic policy to the right of the Republicans in the US, overhauled the NHS and welfare in a way that Thatcher would not have dared, and offered an in-out referendum on Europe. Yet the so-called loons are not content and want much more.
That is quite provocative. We are back where we started: where did it all go wrong?
Richards argues it isn’t that the Tory grassroots have gone “loon”, or Tea-Party, or are lost in the elephant grass to the far right of the fairway. It’s the inconsistency of the whole programme:
The Tory activists have a case too. They have been subjected to a clunky, unsubtle “modernisation” project in which social liberalism, while sincerely espoused, has been added on to the rightwing programme partly in an attempt to secure broader appeal. There has been little deep thinking from Cameron about what a modern Conservative party might be like, but rather a shallow effort to retain most of the thinking on Europe and the state that lost the Conservatives three successive elections, with the addition of support for gay marriage.
The result is an unsatisfying, insubstantial clash between unreformed dwindling local parties and a leadership that acquired the top positions far too early in their careers with only half-formed ideas about what they wanted to change in relation to their party and the country.
Ooof! There’s one deep in the solar plexus!
Now for some archaeology
For Richards, the cleaving goes back back:
The likes of Cameron and his senior advisers make their tentative moves at the top of a Conservative party that has changed fundamentally. None of Thatcher’s successors has addressed the nature of the change. Famously, she transformed the party from the top, making it much more ideological. Much less reflected on is when it became far more rebellious in spirit. The change from below can be precisely identified, taking place at two key moments in its recent history.
That’s the trouble with ideology: once the bacillus is out of the test-tube, the plague is imminent. Particularly so among Tories, who had no previous exposure to any -logy, and so had no immunities.
Then Richards retraces to two seminal moments:
The first was the activists’ response to the introduction of the poll tax in the late 1980s. Previously ultra-loyal Conservative councillors, the rock on which the party was based, were passionately opposed – and for the first time in their lives vented their anger in public…
The next key event was the Conservative conference in the autumn of 1992, held after the government had been forced to leave the European exchange rate mechanism. The anger aimed at the then prime minister, John Major, in speeches from the platform was unyielding and, crucially, the insurrectionists were starting to enjoy themselves.
That’s quite convincing. It traces a direct life-line from the Bruges Group, through John Major’s “bastards”, to (the wasted talent of) Hague, to the loopy enstoolment of Iain Duncan Smith as Hague’s successor, the “dog-whistle” politics of Michael Howard’s 2005 Campaign (when Lynton Crosby whistled to a dog that wasn’t there), through the growing distaste for Cameron’s PR-style, to the present “loons”.
Richards may be in error in several respects:
- He omits the anger over Cameron’s double-standards and double-dealing at the time of the expenses scandals. Some Tory MPs went to the wall, while other offenders (Gove, as one example) were exonerated.
- He misses the further resentment over Leveson, that Cameron turned loose a beast that came back to rend his natural allies in the Press. Clearly, The Daily Telegraph does not easily forget and forgive, even if Murdoch may.
- He glosses over the NIMBY factions, all steamed up over wind-turbines, HS2, lessened building controls, loss of local authority powers (and revenues). Malcolm suspects all, and more, of that is in the sub-text of resistance to “gay marriage” — someone, something has to be blamed for the diminution of Tory power in the shires.
There’s three ways in which Cameron has offended the Code, betraying the old loyalists, the Press barons, and the “turnip Taliban” (remember them?).
- And over his assumption about Labour:
They [“the insurrectionists”] have been enjoying themselves ever since while Labour, though with its own deep structural problems, has acquired an iron discipline in public.
Cameron had an opportunity to remake his restive party and perhaps widen the membership when he won the leadership in 2005, although it would have been a titanic struggle. In terms of daunting context he was much closer at that point to Neil Kinnock, who acquired the Labour leadership 1983 and began a long, painful, arduous journey. Cameron opted for the primrose path instead, declaring that his party must be nice to the poor in Darfur and being photographed on a council estate or with huskies. This did not amount to a significant challenge to activists in the way Kinnock and then Tony Blair updated Labour, partly because on many issues Cameron was at one with his grassroots.
The Stolen Bacillus
Ah! we’re into H.G.Wells at last! We’ve been waiting for this!
Indeed. In the ’70s, in Opposition, Labour took the ideology wholesale. It didn’t infect all-comers. It did inoculate the host, though it took many years for the infection to clear the body. And Labour is not readily going to take the Kool-Aid so soon again.
Now it’s the Tories’ turn. We must observe closely to see if their infection becomes the UKIP pandemic we are promised (Malcolm suspects not).
As H.G. finishes his neat little tale of the bacteriologist and the purloined bacillus:
“You see, that man came to my house to see me, and he is an Anarchist. No – don’t faint, or I cannot possibly tell you the rest. And I wanted to astonish him, not knowing he was an Anarchist, and took up a cultivation of that new species of Bacterium I was telling you of, that infest, and I think cause, the blue patches upon various monkeys; and like a fool, I said it was Asiatic cholera. And he ran away with it to poison the water of London, and he certainly might have made things look blue for this civilized city. And now he has swallowed it. Of course, I cannot say what will happen, but you know it turned that kitten blue, and the three puppies — in patches, and the sparrow — bright blue. But the bother is, I shall have all the trouble and expense of preparing some more.”