Andrew Marshall is Managing Director of Cognito Media and a Camden Conservative Councillor.
I’ve a lot of sympathy with Matthew Parris, but he was wrong to pick “elements” in ConservativeHome as revolutionary defeatists – though there are certainly quite a few of them in the party activist base and some in the parliamentary party.
It’s quite natural that some of those who know Carswell would not want to attack him. Changing party is not a morally deficient thing to do (especially if you trigger a by-election). It’s not a crime, and arguably quite normal in a democracy. Parties change with time and events, however rich their history. If a Conservative MP whom I knew and respected joined Labour or the Liberal Dems, I wouldn’t rush out to condemn them (would Parris?) – I’d just be sad. Which is why the that language CCHQ appears to have put into the mouth of our Essex county council leader about Carswell’s “political ambitions” was ill judged.
Where Parris is correct is that the Tory Right is now a movement, and a movement on a war footing, whereas the Tory Left is hardly alive and without any real strategy. There is no countervailing pressure at all on Cameron from a centrist, pro-European position within the party. Sad, but there it is. It’s like the British regular army in summer 1914: a tiny force, with no clear strategy. The fact that there is likely, in a post-defeat leadership election, to be no candidate firmly backing UK membership of the EU is very striking.
Denis Healey may have lost the Labour leadership, as Roy Hattersley also did, but at least the Labour right had a candidate. The views and sentiments of the Tory Left enjoy, in my judgement, a broad if ill-defined echo in the population at large, but not, at present, in the Party membership or within the parliamentary party. I see in the anti-EU movement an analogy with Tariff Reform: the party became madly in favour, and always thought it would be a lot more popular in the electorate than it actually was.
We all have to work out what we can personally live with in a political party. It’s impressive if people like Paul and others at ConHome remain utterly committed to the party, even if the leadership has a different view on a contentious issue like the EU. Of course the issues always change with time (remember retail price maintenance), all parties are by definition compromises, and you can’t change your party every couple of years.
But for most people, there has to be some level of alignment on the big issues of the time. If – utterly hypothetically – a future Conservative leader said that there would be no EU referendum after all and that and he or she was fully committed to UK membership of the EU, would everyone stay in the party? I think not. Similarly (and less hypothetically), if the next Conservative leader is in favour of withdrawal from the EU, some people will have to think whether it is actually in the national interest for that person to lead a government.
As we’ve found, and as Labour found in the 1970s, you can’t quarantine division on a major issue by means of a referendum and just go on as normal. Most Conservatives share common views on very many issues, from the deficit to free schools – but the big issues of the day are just that, and division on a big issue inevitably spills over into much else. Where that brings us, the next twelve months will tell.