There’s definitely more joy to be had in politics when watching your enemies lose than the successes of people with whom you grudgingly acknowledge allegiance. Success is always contaminated by the nagging expectation of inevitable betrayal and disappointment. I think this must be down to some basic masochism in the political psyche – there can never be victory, at least not in national politics, only the postponement of disaster and the incubation of failure. Watching the bastards go down though, that never gets stale.
So it is that I woke today to the welcome news that the Tories got roundly shafted in the local elections. This rounded off a glorious couple of months where the veil truly slipped and they were exposed as venal, incompetent, Murdoch-shilling plutocrats without a plan or even a half-baked excuse for the absence of one.
The central act of this disgusting farce was the final demise of their long-suffering excuse for their destructive policies – that it was all an unfortunate necessity brought about by “Labour’s” economic mismanagement. This threadbare nonsense has been brutally overused in the the last two years, and there was no way it could deflect the fallout from the confirmation that the economy had indeed entered a double-dip recession.
Instead the public at large was forced to confront the awful truth that, rather than being a bloke no-one liked but was kept around because he was really good at his job, George Osbourne was basically a medieval quack doctor marching around in a beaked mask, torturing his patients to death under the guise of some pseudoscientific ‘treatment’.
The Party’s Over
What then will be the fallout from the revenge voters inflicted on the Tories for this unpleasant revelation? To general delight, the swivel-eyed lunatic wing of the Tory party (apparently comprising somewhere around half their MPs and about 2/3 of party members), has weighed in with an early pitch. The Daily Mail has splashed with the obviously pre-determined line “Now Stand Up For Tory Values“ and threatening “Coalition civil war”.
The Mail Article is pretty vague about the actual policies they want enacted, but the subject areas mentioned plot a predictable course through the usual right-wing boner list including tax-cuts, law & order, and the wholesale destruction of human rights, the EU, the NHS and environmental legislation. The rent-a-quote MPs in the article are clearly more fixated on what they hate than what they want – Gay Marriage, Lords Reform and ‘wind turbine Toryism’, but I guess they and the Mail know their readership well enough that these items add up to a coherent mental picture, and some twisted idealised conception of what makes a good government.
At the outset I’d like to say that these developments have pleased me no end. I haven’t felt this happy about British politics since those few heady hours on 10th May 2010 when it looked like the Tories might be shut out of government and would set upon David Cameron like sharks with the smell of blood in their nostrils, tearing apart the most electable leader they’ve had for 20 years. Cameron was a bit too quick-witted to succumb to that fate then, but the last few hours have convinced me there’s still hope, and that the dream of Karl Stromberg can still be realised in the upper echelons of conservative politics.
It is one of adult life’s sad realisations that Parliament is not brimming with the greatest intellects in the land, but actually seems to have an uncanny ability to attract people with blunted critical faculties. Sadly, I think that’s probably one of the personality traits which allows people to rise to the top of party politics. I guess it’s in keeping with the Tory party’s status as kind of repository for the most base and atavistic traits in the British national character, that they nurture some of the very dimmest.
Jonathan Freedland has already mentioned the absurdity of this knee-jerk Tory reaction in his response piece for the elections:
Cameron will have to do his best not to reveal his exasperation as he explains that when a party loses votes to its left, it is potty to move right.
But this doesn’t really capture the idiocy of what’s being proposed. Fully 74% of voters rejected Cameron’s re-branded conservatism at the 2010 General Election. It takes a very special kind of intellect to decide that what was at fault was the window dressing, rather than the foetid and rotten product it sought to disguise.
Furthermore, it’s really important to recognise where brand Cameron comes from. The Tory party in the UK before 2010 had been out of power for the longest continuous period of time since the First World War, a brutal shock to the mojo of a group who consider themselves natural rulers. While some of this was due to the personal qualities of Tony Blair, it has much more to do with the legacy of Tory rule from 1979 to 1992, dominated by the reign of Margaret Thatcher which brutalised and alienated large swathes of the population before collapsing into a prolonged 4½ year death spasm a few years after her demise.
In those last few years of the miserable tenure of John Major the party managed the following: pissing away its reputation for economic competence; indulging in savage infighting over Europe so serious the prime minister resigned as party leader, in order to force a leadership contest & re-assert some control; making itself a national laughing stock by bleating about a return to traditional family values while being publicly exposed as a bunch of sex pests and philanders; and most infamously appearing to suggest that the solution to the country’s problems was a phone line for members of the public to call if they discovered a traffic cone which was out of place.
Basically they turned everything they touched to shit, and hunkered down in Whitehall bickering and selling off national assets to pass the time, postponing their final reckoning with an outraged electorate until the last possible moment.
This kind of behaviour is electorally suicidal by any standards, but as an encore to 10 years of Thatcher (who was deeply reviled by much of the electorate but stayed in power because her government was seen as more competent than the opposition), it approaches monumental levels of self-destruction. Since then, the Tories have had to deal the with the fact that a sizable proportion of the electorate justifiably think they are venal, ham-fisted scum with anti-social tendencies serious enough to warrant sectioning.
Lancing the Boil
There were some attempts to deal with this poisonous legacy within the party – Theresa May notably pointed out that they were seen as the “Nasty Party” in a speech in 2002, but until Cameron there was no serious attempt to make a clean break with the past. Of the previous leaders, Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, were both known to be Thatcher’s choice of candidate (and serial incompetents to boot), and Michael Howard had been Major’s home secretary, and was gifted the leadership as a caretaker to salvage the party from the wreckage of IDS’ tenure.
By the time Cameron became leader in 2005, the Tories had been behind in the polls, and polling consistently below 40% since October 1992, 13 years earlier. The only election they had won in the previous 18 years had been a huge surprise because significant numbers of their supporters were too embarrassed to tell the truth to polling companies. That bears repeating: even in 1992, before John Major’s disastrous 5 year term term, the Tories were so reviled that around 8% of the electorate, around 20% of the people who voted for them, were so ashamed of themselves they mislead pollsters about their voting intentions.
Now, I think Cameron has already proved himself a patronising half-wit who isn’t fit to run a lemonade stall, but to give him his dues he recognised the importance of demonstrating that the party had changed. The rest of course, is recent history – huskies, hoodies, sneakers, LBGT Tories and repeated vocal support for the NHS, all of this stuff which has irritated the Daily Mail and the Tory right, both of whom have been dying to stick the knife into him from day one.
Even with this mammoth PR undertaking, combined with the massive bungling of Gordon Brown and the largest financial crisis since the 1930s, Cameron only persuaded 36% of voters to back him. This is the context within which he is being urged to return to Tory values. As I said before, to reach a conclusion this perverse takes a very special kind of intellect.
Actually, the way project Cameron has played out tells you quite a lot about the nature of the Tory party. The next time someone attempts to argue that the Tories do not exist primarily as a vehicle to befit the wealthy and powerful, remind them how in the last few years they have jettisoned the homophobia and attacks on single mothers which where so characteristic of the party in the 80s and 90s, but Osbourne couldn’t even manage two budgets without falsifying his own claim that “we’re all in this together” by cutting the top rate of income tax.
Two years down the line it’s increasingly clear that Cameron’s long performance of being a different kind of Tory was basically cover for the extremely regressive policies he has pursued on welfare, state spending, and NHS privatisation. The fact that things have unravelled so quickly – two years of rule undoing 5 years of staged photo-ops suggests quite strongly that they just can’t help themselves.
The Tory party is basically for people who shamelessly favour the weathy, who see nothing wrong with taking donations from private healthcare companies while you secretly plan a policy which will seriously enrich them but will be hidden from the electorate. For people who are quite happy to fob the public off with cant about their disabled son and the NHS when it is expedient, then placidly producing plans to dismember it once the dirty business of getting elected is finished with. Although this attitude was obviously going to bite them in the arse soon enough, you almost get the feeling that they are so arrogant they actually expected to get away with it.
Cameron’s softly softly approach to despoiling the few remaining things which still mark out the UK as a half-way civilised country has always been anathema to much of the Tory party. These people not only need to be regularly sated with fresh blood, but also they also need to hear their leader bellow to the moon about traditional values, and how everyone who is suffering under their misrule has really brought it on themselves by being poor/feckless/immoral/disabled/leftwing/female/from the wrong country (delete as appropriate) and therefore deserve everything they get.
Cameron Stuck on the Horns
The trouble is, actually talking about it is antithetical to Cameron’s whole shtick. The more brazen he is about their his radical economic agenda, the less cover he can get for it from his social liberal act . He’s always suffered from the creeping suspicion that he is phoney, and to give the right-wing what they want, he’d need to renounce several of his long-cultivated positions, torpedoing his public trust and hastening his removal from office.
That’s even if he wanted to. Obviously his interest in the environment was wafer-thin, and he doesn’t give a flying fuck about kids in hoodies, so long as they’re kept out of view, but I reckon he probably does actually think gay marriage is an inevitable progressive development. Probably in private he and his circle treat Nadine Dorries and her regressive social views with the contempt they deserve.
Furthermore, Cameron is in coalition with the Lib Dems. He can’t rock the boat on human rights, law & order, gay rights or Europe, and his room to manoeuvre on the environment is pretty narrow as well. Clegg has, of course, been extremely flexible, and supported pretty much every demented Tory policy to come out of the government (at least initially). But the wider party have on occasion demonstrated that their collective gag reflex is still functioning.
After two years of being the Tories’ useful idiots, and taking fire on their behalf, is it finally time for the Lib Dems to be useful idiots for the rest of us and dampen the reflexive Tory instinct to meet adversity with ever more extreme and savage measures? Let’s hope so. A fat lot of good it will do them, but they are a lost cause either way – they might as well ameliorate some harm on the way out.
It used to be the case, back in the early days of the coalition, that the Tories could reasonably expect to do well out of a snap election and could hold that possibility over the Lib Dems, who would expect to be decimated. With Cameron’s current poll ratings, that is no longer the case, and unless his numbers turn around we should expect both coalition partners to stay locked in a death-grip until the 5 year term is up.
Following the Daily Mail’s advice could also be electorally harmful for Cameron. If we take Gay marriage, one of the handful of totemic issues that he is being urged to change course on, only a minority of voters are against it and public opinion is particularly in favour of it amongst young people and women, neither of whom Cameron would be wise to antagonise.
Cameron, it seems, is in a classic dilemma. On the one side lie his coalition partners, his governing majority, his long-cultivated socially liberal image, the electoral middle ground and at least some of his natural instincts. On the other side lie his party, including many of his cabinet colleagues and sizable section of the press who are getting restive and whose violent canibalistic instincts will increase as they taste blood and his electoral fortunes dwindle.
The more vocal the opposition within Tory ranks, the more his electoral fortunes will dwindle, and the wider standing of his party along with it. The spectre of UKIP stealing votes on the Tories’ right flank will be raised repeatedly, even though their actual share of the vote in these elections was 5% and they didn’t gain a single candidate.
Expect plenty of idiocy on a European theme from Cameron in the coming months. He’s going to have to try and solicit votes from a political constituency full of people who share Anders Behring Breivik’s analysis, whilst preventing further haemorrhaging on the political centre ground. He’s already chucked some red meat rightwards in the form of a shameless dog-whistling speech on multiculturalism (cited approvingly by Breivik from the dock, incidentally), which has predictably enough turned ethnic minority voters off the party of Enoch Powell even further.
All in all, we’re looking at a fair wind for some serious Tory infighting and a good chance they’ll relegate themselves back to the position of reviled minority opposition party that they’ve occupied for most of the last 20 years. In the meantime, sit back and watch Cameron’s contortions while his party circle biting big chunks out of him. Buy popcorn.