Is this the end game for Theresa May and Tory Britain?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 11th 2017

The British Conservatives have for most of their history been an impressively successful political force, winning elections and forming the UK government on its own or in coalition for two-thirds of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It then behooves the rest of us to try and understand the Conservative Party – what motivates its thinking, actions and ethos. And this matters even more when they are engulfed in infighting and faction fighting, in what looks like the lingering death rites of Theresa May’s premiership.

Trying to understand Tories is beyond some. From Nye Bevan’s ‘Tories are lower than vermin’ 1948 speech (which was reputed to have lost Labour half a million votes in the subsequent 1950 election), to the battle cry of many a protest of ‘Tory scum’, there is a long left-wing tradition of demonising Tories as one dimensional villains.

There is even a vogue in anti-Toryism in the popularity of ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ t-shirts and mugs, and the sentiment expressed by Labour MP Laura Pidcock who said she could not have a Tory as a friend because they represented ‘the enemy.’

This summer I was speaking to a group of Corbynistas. When I mentioned that it might be good politics to understand Tories, one responded: ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Another reflected on what seemed like a revolutionary observation saying ‘I have never thought of that’ and subsequently said they were ‘going to try to understand the Tories.’

The scale of the trouble the Tories are in is unprecedented in post-war times. In the party’s long history only the bitter divisions over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 between supporters of Robert Peel and protectionism and Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis culminating in the Munich dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, are in any way comparable. The former led to the Tories being out of office for the next 28 years, while the shame of Munich lasted long into post-war times.

The present predicament combines short-term and longer-term factors. The short-term is the abysmal state of Theresa May’s leadership. It is hard to believe that only a few months ago it was being claimed she could walk on water and do no wrong. But political honeymoons aren’t what they used to be – as Nicola Sturgeon can testify, and Jeremy Corbyn and Ruth Davidson should take note of.

This wouldn’t be so serious if it were just a matter of changing the leader: something the Tories have proven adept at. Much more seriously, the world that created the Tory idea of England, and with it the balancing act of England as Britain personified by the likes of Stanley Baldwin, continued in a more modern context by Margaret Thatcher, has all but collapsed.

What is Brexit but a very English response to people feeling the existing order is increasingly outwith their control? It isn’t an accident that Euroscepticism has been nearly entirely an English phenomenon – with Scotland and Northern Ireland significantly pro-EU and Wales somewhat less (and providing a narrow Brexit majority).

The Tory Party is literally dying. Whereas they once had three million members in the 1950s, now they have at best 100,000 – with an aged, inactive base. This makes them in members the fourth party of the UK, behind Labour (570,000 and rising), SNP (120,000) and Lib Dems (108,000). Tory insiders say the party faces the prospect of ‘oblivion’ on current membership trends – with half of their constituency parties having fewer than one hundred members.

It isn’t very surprising that the views of Tory members are increasingly at odds with the modern world. A Queen Mary University study of members found 25% support for UK membership of the single market, 27% for remaining in the customs union, and 31% agreeing that immigration had been a benefit to the UK.

This has implications for the next Tory leader, as whoever takes the top job will do so in a contest where the membership choose between the top two candidates decided by the parliamentary party. This process will impose a number of barriers on various candidates and persuasions.

First, Boris Johnson might be the darling of Tory constituency associations, but it more than likely he will never get to the final ballot of members. In a recent poll of members he was the most popular candidate by far, but also won run-offs against David Davis or Amber Rudd. Second, the uncompromising Brexit views of members make it extremely unlikely that a liberal Tory with Ruth Davidson-style views can win.

This leaves the future of the Tories, and hence the UK Government, looking like it may be Boris-ism without Boris. The flirtations of Tories for Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ruth Davidson show the desperation some in the party are reduced to: dreaming of the certainty of old Toryism, while others yearn to be popular and in touch with the modern world.

The Westminster class obsession with Davidson is revealing because it illuminates some of the batty thinking around about Tory remedies. Last week Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein proposed in all seriousness that Theresa May remain as Prime Minister until 2021, partly to allow Ruth Davidson to fight the Scottish Parliament elections of that year, before handing over to her. Matthew d’Ancona made the case for the imminent May reshuffle making Davidson chair of the British party as a preparation for parachuting her into a Westminster seat.

These are desperate Tory men who know that they are cornered and running out of options. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that commandeering Davidson to lead the British troops undercuts the Scottish operation. It sends out the signal that the Scottish Tories don’t really matter and are just a side show and preparation for the main event. As ‘The Economist’ pointed out this would undermine all the recent efforts from Davidson to bring the Scottish Tories back in from the cold and show that ‘the local Tories are no more than the tail of the English dog.’

This is beginning to look like a Tory end-game: a government, party and set of ideas hollowed out, discredited and exhausted, and who would rather fight each other than put government first. We have witnessed this before and on the last occasion, pre-1997, Anthony Seldon, biographer of many Prime Ministers, produced a handy book, ‘How Tory Governments Fall’.

Seldon identifies nine reasons why Tory Governments fall – also relevant to non-Tory Governments. Namely a negative image of the party leader; confusion over policy direction; manifest internal party disunity; organizational disarray in the country; depleted party finance; a hostile intellectual and press climate; loss of confidence in economic management; a strong feeling that it is time for a change; and a revived and credible opposition.

Seldon doesn’t say you need all nine for Tory Governments to fall, but the big game changing defeats the party has experienced: 1832, 1906, 1945, 1997, have seen most, if not all of these factors converge, as they are doing in the UK of 2017.

The Tory Party vision of Britain – economically, socially, in how you do domestic affairs and geo-politically – and of how Britain sees itself and wants to project itself in the world – is in multiple meltdown. The tensions between the Tories embrace of hard capital and capitalism are coming home after forty years of a buccaneering pseudo-free marketism. This is combined in Brexit with the age old Tory split between free trade idealism and protectionism – which through the years has led to bitter splits such as the 1846 Corn Law schism and 1905-6 on tariff reform which led to Churchill and others leaving the Tories for the Liberals.

Beyond the emergence of Ruth Davidson as a UK-wide Tory phenomenon, the British Conservative Party is not in a good state. It is out of touch with large parts of public opinion, doesn’t understand young people (now defined in Toryland as anyone 47 years old or younger), and doesn’t feel at ease with modern Britain. More critically, it doesn’t have an idea of the future, but instead is harking back to the past, whether it is the 1980s or 1880s. And in is doing it itself may end up not having a future.

The battle over Brexit is about the kind of Britain Tories want to see, and ominously the smoke signals now indicate that the ‘No Deal’ Tories are becoming more assertive. Such an approach would be the most significant act of national self-harm the Tories have ever inflicted upon this country, and with such high stakes it is no surprise the civil service have been working on Brexit scenarios which see the UK Government fall. Project BANTA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) sees as one option no deal leading to the fall not just of May but the Tories in office.

These are serious times: as challenging for the Tories as 1846 and 1905-6, but also of existential threats nearly as profound as the 1930s. We have run out of metaphors to describe Theresa May’s Premiership: ‘zombie like’, ‘a hologram PM’, or in George Osborne’s words ‘a dead woman walking.’ The time is also running out for May and the Tories, but that won’t solve the mess they got themselves and the country into.