The ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ of the Conservative Party are now the ‘Roons’ and ‘Loons’ – that is to say, the ‘Cameroons’ of the modernising Tory left and the ‘Swivel-eyed Loons’ of the traditionalist Tory right.
It’s not as simple as that, of course, but as a pared-down description of the party’s on-and-off civil war it has its uses.
Writing for Standpoint, there’s no doubt as to where Robin Harris stands, which is over the grave of the enemy, grimly satisfied:
- “Tory modernisation… is definitively dead. It is no longer a project: it is a curiosity…
- “The party leadership fears losing office and the MPs fear losing their seats. In such conditions, they throw out anything that weighs them down. The gunwales are already low in the water, and modernisation has been pumped out of the bilges.”
By way of evidence for his assessment of the situation Harris cites a variety of tougher, more vocal stances on Europe, immigration, welfare and other issues:
- “…the most unlikely transformation is of Theresa May, who has changed from sea-green moderniser to eye-popping populist… The reinvented May is now threatening to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights, berating pussy-footing officials and chastising the judiciary in a rhetorical war with illegals, terrorists and assorted softies.”
For Robin Harris, the modernisers always were the nastiest part of the Conservative Party:
- “First, they gathered around Michael Portillo. Then after his withdrawal, successively supporting and later destroying William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, they shrewdly used Michael Howard to promote one of their own, in the pliable form of David Cameron. Politics is a brutal game. But for sustained personal unpleasantness the Conservative modernisers deserve some kind of award. In private and in print, their long campaign was carried on in a tone of consistently venomous contempt.”
Again this is a simplification. Harris’s taxonomy of the different modernising factions barely scratches the surface of what was really going on. For instance, it’s worth mentioning that key modernisers like George Osborne and Danny Finkelstein were loyal lieutenants to William Hague, even as other modernisers did everything in their power to undermine his leadership.
Nevertheless, Harris is right to remind us of the sheer viciousness of this period. Those responsible for what was done to Hague and IDS have never apologised – and while particular individuals have been able to move on, the party, as a whole, has not.
Harris is also right to trace the origins of the modernising project to “the shattering defeat of 1997.” However, his explanation for that defeat is thoroughly inadequate:
- “The Conservative Party was clearly narrowly-based and unrepresentative. But that was the effect, not the cause of the problem. By the last days of Major, the party no longer represented success, so successful people kept away. And so it looked like a rump — because it was indeed a rump. Rumps are not usually attractive.”
This is a beautifully circular account, but it does not begin to explain the loss of five million votes – an unprecedented electoral catastrophe. The modernisation project may have been the wrong reaction and, at times, a deeply unpleasant reaction, but it was not an over-reaction.
Tory traditionalists have never been able to provide a convincing explanation for our greatest electoral disaster: a failure of imagination that gave the modernisers their big chance – because they, at least, had something to put on the table.
What the modernisers offered was not good enough – a fact that becomes more apparent by the day, but to pretend that all of our problems are their fault is yet another cop-out.