A struggle for the Tory soul
Walking back to the Palace of Westminster the other day, I bumped into a new Tory MP. He was eager to tell me what the Chancellor should do in the Budget: abolish the 50p rate, scrap labour market protections for young workers and announce the building of another airport. But by the time we had reached the entrance to the Commons, this enthusiasm had given way to melancholy.
It wasn’t the Liberal Democrats, though, who were spoiling his mood. It was the leadership of his own party. As we arrived at the entrance to the Commons, his voice dropped as he recalled a presentation from the Prime Minister and his political team to all Tory MPs last month. ‘It was all this modernising stuff,’ he said, disdainfully.
This MP was right about one thing: modernisation is what drives the Tory leadership’s approach to government. As one influential figure put it to me this week, ‘modernisation means one thing — winning a majority’. Indeed, those close to the leadership express amusement that so many people still attack ‘modernisation’. They joke that their critics want a deliberately ‘un-modern’ party.
To understand Tory modernisation you need to grasp that it is the product of two traumatic defeats: the 1997 general election and the 2001 Tory leadership contest. These events have influenced the Cameron project as much as Labour’s loss in 1992 did the Blair one. Indeed, it is an under-appreciated fact that nearly all modern political projects are borne out of failure.
Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, and the delight that greeted it, was a painful demonstration to those who became modernisers of how toxic the Tory brand had become. To lose was one thing, but to secure your lowest share of the vote since 1832 was quite another. It made them question the style in which the party had governed for the past 18 years.
Perhaps even more painful than this defeat was Michael Portillo’s loss in the 2001 leadership election. This made many of them doubt whether the party even wanted to regain power.
These experiences shape how the Cameroons approach politics today. They fear anything that could retoxify the brand. Ask almost anyone in Downing Street about the 50p tax rate and they’ll admit that it is bad for the economy. In the next sentence, though, they’ll say that it is very difficult to do anything about it for political reasons. Indeed,
those close to the Prime Minister say that he fears that if the Budget reduces the 50p rate that is all it will be remembered for, which would reinforce the Tories’ reputation as the party of the rich. Intriguingly, the Chancellor is keener than the Prime Minister to do something about it. But, being a moderniser, he still wants appropriate covering fire in place if he is to move against it.
Another defining feature of the Cameron leadership is its impatience with internal dissent. This is, in large part, a reaction to Portillo’s defeat. When it was suggested to one moderniser that they should tread carefully with a particular group of Tory MPs, he
The most important distinction in the Conservative party today is between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ modernisers replied ‘these are the idiots responsible for giving us Iain Duncan Smith’.
At first glance, it seems odd — if not bizarre — that an internal party election 11 years ago still has such a grip on the modernising consciousness. But we must remember that pretty much the first decision that David Cameron and George Osborne took as MPs was to back Portillo for the leadership; they shared the view that he was the one who got why they had lost so badly in 1997 and 2001. He understood that the party was, as he said at the launch of his campaign, ‘in grave peril, in grave danger of what may happen next’.
That the party then rejected him was seen by many modernisers as both an offence against the natural order of things and as proof that the party was no longer serious about power. It made many of them consider quitting politics. Instead, they decided to try and retake the party. They set up a thinktank, Policy Exchange, whose tenth anniversary is this week, and a political unit called C-Change.
‘You need amendments.’
When Cameron launched his leadership bid four years later, he did so not as Portillo had at a swanky London restaurant but at the offices of Policy Exchange. The modernisers had built themselves a movement.
But once Cameron had won, the modernisers faced a question to which they have never quite found an answer: what were they for? Were they about presenting classic Tory arguments in a modern way or was their aim to make an accommodation with the political settlement of the day? It is telling that C-Change, the political wing of the modernising movement, closed down soon after Cameron had become leader.The most important distinction in the Conservative party today is between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ modernisers.
In government, this tension about what modernisation is about is apparent. Much of Steve Hilton’s frustration stems from the fact that the radical Tory measures he proposed kept being blocked for political reasons.
Soft and hard modernisers agree on a host of things. They, for instance, accept the importance of having a more diverse mix of candidates. They are also keen to reach out to groups that haven’t previously voted Tory: both sets of modernisers support gay marriage, for example.
Where they disagree is on how much the centre can be moved now that the party is in government. The hard modernisers believe that the best way to show that the Tories care about public services is to improve them through reform. For their part, the soft modernisers worry more about getting on the wrong side of public sector bodies. It was the soft modernisers who pushed for the ‘pause’ in the NHS reforms while the hard modernisers feared that it gave too much power to the BMA et al. This week, two hard modernising ministers described ‘the pause’ to me as the government’s single biggest mistake.
In this struggle for the Tory soul, the hard modernisers have one huge advantage: the new Tory MPs. These MPs are extremely receptive to their agenda.The Free Enterprise Group, which includes much of the talent of the intake, is aggressively hard modernising; seeking to apply Tory thinking to traditionally left-wing subjects like childcare.
Ultimately, it is the hard modernising agenda that is most likely to deliver an intellectually confident Tory party that is at ease with itself and the country. It is that kind of party that is most likely to deliver that elusive Tory majority.
the spectator | 10 march 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Everyone seems very bored with the coalition, but if you look at the pre-Budget discussions, might it not be working quite well? It is surely a good thing that most senior Liberals now admit that the 50 per cent top rate of income tax is not necessarily a great idea, and that most senior Conservatives now begin to recognise that the vast amount of wealth tied up in property should not be able to avoid tax as much as it does. The Lib Dems have to confront the reality that high taxes encourage avoidance, drive away talent and, eventually, reduce revenue. The Tories have to focus on the fact that income taxes are shockingly high for the poor and that houses and land are not made to work for their owners’ living as they should. These dawning perceptions could be the basis of a constructive dialogue. Traditionally, the Budget has been treated as a box of tricks which no one but the magician (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) may inspect. Governments, therefore, have been like companies run by their finance directors: they have failed to work out what they really want to do. Slowly, the structure of the coalition is changing this for the better.
But there may well be a base reason for the way the ‘mansion tax’ is shooting into prominence. The only place in the country where the tax would really threaten a lot of people is London. There are two months to go before the mayoral election. If George Osborne announces a mansion tax in his Budget, we shall know for certain that he and David Cameron do not want Boris Johnson re-elected.
Meanwhile, the government wants to impose a new and oppressive tax on the poor — a minimum price for alcohol. It is always in the name of health that the working class are attacked. But what struck me most about the story was how the decision was taken. According to the Sunday Times, ‘The decision to go ahead was made at a meeting chaired by Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, and attended by [Andrew] Lansley, Theresa May, the home secretary, and Vince Cable, the business secretary … it was not put to Cabinet.’ This is yet another example of the unacknowledged change in our constitution by which civil servants are put in charge (see also Crown appointments, honours forfeiture, IPSA, the Information Commissioner etc) of their elected political masters. ‘During the meeting,’ the report went on, ‘Heywood is said to have overruled Lansley’s objections.’ By what right?
One cannot understand the life of Norman St John Stevas unless one realises that he was, in part, Greek. He had a romantic longing for social acceptance. Why else would Norman have suppressed his Christian name Panayea, adopted a fruity English voice and taken the extreme (and unique?) measure of becoming an officer not only of the Cambridge but also of the Oxford Union? On one occasion as a very young man, Norman told my parents, he had lunch with Gwilym Lloyd George, son of David and — at that time — Minister for Food. The first course was mushrooms, to which Norman was allergic, but he felt too deferential to refuse. As a result, as they left the restaurant and stood waiting for a taxi, he was sick all over the minister’s shoes. It is easy — indeed, unavoidable, if one reads Lord St John’s wonderful obituary in the Telegraph — to laugh, but pity the country where immigrants or the children of immigrants have no desire to ape its culture. Are there any Stevases now growing up? Shall we look upon his like again?
Francis Maude says the Conservatives will always be the ‘nasty party’ until they support gay marriage and identify with ethnic minorities. Doesn’t the former make the latter impossible?
In Afghanistan, mobs got in a rage and killed Americans last month when it turned out that American forces had destroyed copies of the Koran by mistake. President Obama apologised in person. In Benghazi recently, a group of Libyan Islamists set to work, deliberately and apparently unhindered, to desecrate the Commonwealth war graves — British, Australian, Canadian, Polish, even Sudanese — there. If you watch the film on YouTube, you see them laughing as they kick tombstones over and smash them. The camera focuses gloatingly on the Star of David on a Jewish serviceman’s stone. You can hear people shouting ‘Jew! Jew!’ in Arabic. Then men get a ladder and attack the large memorial cross with hammers — ‘Break the cross of the dogs!’ the crowd cries. One is glad, of course, that British mobs are not trashing North African restaurants or mosques in retaliation, but it is disheartening that official reaction has been so muted. These horrible attacks are part of a pattern across the Muslim world in which any public symbols of anything un-Islamic — a church, a synagogue, a monument — are insulted. The dead are abused and the living intimidated. Ministerial responses here are of the ‘We understand why people of the wartime generation feel upset’ variety, rather than expressing any real shock themselves. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from its inception, insisted on an equality of respect in death — for officers and men, for Christian, Jew, Muslim and Hindu. It maintains its graves all over the world where Commonwealth servicemen fell. When these graves are attacked, a particularly fine and, in a way, universal set of values is spat upon.
Radio Twee latest. Sarah Mohr-Pietsch after playing a bit of Dvorak’s 9th symphony: ‘music which for Dvorak symbolised America … and for many of us symbolises a lost bucolic world of cobbled streets. Of course, that Hovis ad in which it was used wasn’t actually filmed in Yorkshire at all.’ Are cobbled streets bucolic? Why would anyone think the Hovis ad was filmed in Yorkshire, since the speaker has a vaguely West Country accent? While we are on the subject of bread, Nigel Farndale contributes this, from Penny Gore this week: ‘Brahms was on a roll’.
the spectator | 10 march 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk