The tribes of British politics: Where are they now?

Part two: The Tory Tribes

Yesterday, I described a shattered British political landscape – one in which “some of the ruling tribes are now lost; while some of the lost tribes now rule”.

Today, we look at what the great disruption has done to the tribal infrastructure of the Conservative Party.

The Cameroons

I guess we should begin with a tale of total destruction.

In a parallel universe, where the shocks of 2015, 2016 and 2017 never happened, the transfer of power from David Cameron to George Osborne would have been the big – and, no doubt, carefully choreographed – change anticipated over the next year or two. 

Fancy footwork was always the Cameroon modus operandi. In all but the last three years, it served them pretty well, but then they tripped over themselves. At first, the forward momentum delivered victory in 2015, which came about more by accident than design. However, the eventual face-first collision with reality was always part of the trajectory. 

Of course, Osborne didn’t have to quit the Commons in 2017. He may have become Prime Minister if he hadn’t; but taking the long view was never his style. In testing times, steadfastness allied to vision is the only way forward. 

As it is, a political dynasty that was all set to remake the Conservative Party in its own image has come to a premature end.

The Post-Cameroons

The Cameroons may have gone, but the Conservative ‘modernisers’ are still around. Let’s not forget that they survived the collapse of another once-dominant Tory tribe – the Portillistas (remember them?). Policy Exchange, the original moderniser base of operations, still continues as one of the UK’s most important think tanks; Bright Blue provides a home for the ‘uber-modernisers’; and now there’s the intriguing Onward, which has plenty of Cameroonian connections without being limited to them.

As yet, there is no obvious leader for the post-Cameroon tribe. Its institutions, though, guarantee ongoing relevance; and until other big party factions take the development of new ideas half as seriously, the intellectual initiative will stay with the modernisers. 

The Borisites and the Govians

Even back in 2014, I had Boris Johnson and his fans down as a distinct tribe only loosely allied to the Cameroons. The events of the Brexit campaign would show just how loose.

The last three years have been nearly as disruptive to Johnson’s ambitions as they have to Osborne’s. Had Labour won in 2015, Boris Johnson would have been Leader of the Opposition; had his 2016 leadership campaign not blown up on the launchpad, he could have been Prime Minister; and had he shown a stronger grip as Foreign Secretary he would at least be May’s heir apparent.

He’s not out of the running yet, but he’s now only one of a number of possibilities.

Which brings us to his erstwhile ally Michael Gove. Exactly why the two men fell out so spectacularly is something we may not discover for decades, if ever. But as the months have gone by, Gove’s actions have been seen in an increasingly favourable light.

It helps that, unlike others, he has rolled with the punches. He accepted his sacking by Theresa May with good grace; he played a supportive role on the backbenches; he didn’t quit when the snap election was called; he returned to Cabinet in Theresa’s time of need; and, most importantly, he’s used his tenure at DEFRA to shape a positive, bridge-building Brexit agenda (albeit one that doesn’t publicly stray beyond his departmental brief). 

More than any other Brexiteer, he attracts support from among Conservative remainers, in particular the Post-Cameroons (see above). Looking ahead, he’s in an increasingly strong position to emerge as the Tory kingmaker or, just maybe, the king.  

The Tory mainstream

The pragmatic, middle ground of the Conservative Party has always been the most numerous of the Tory tribes, but rarely the dominant one. Over the last 50 years almost all the leaders of the party have come from other factions – Heath (Tory left), Thatcher (Tory right), Major (quickly captured by the Tory left), IDS (Tory right), Howard (Tory right turned proto-Cameroon), Cameron (Cameroon). Only William Hague could be counted as a mainstreamer, but of course he never became Prime Minister.

Then came Theresa May, who, though once thought of as a moderniser, began her Premiership by dispatching the surviving Cameroons. If she hadn’t comprehensively blown the snap election, her dominance of the party would have been as complete, and perhaps more secure, than that of the first female PM.

Losing the government’s majority in the midst of the Brexit negotiations should have been enough to finish her off, but she’s still here.This isn’t just for lack of an obvious successor;  she also owes her survival to the preponderance of mainstreamers in the ministerial ranks. The big beast Brexiteers may get most of the attention, but moderate remainers actually run the show. 

Even if Theresa May is finally dislodged by the stresses and strains of the negotiation process, her immediate successor is more likely than not to be someone of her (non-)ideological ilk. The latest name in the frame is Jeremy Hunt’s. The Health Secretary was once seen as Cameron-like (or should that be ‘Cameron-lite’?). However, more than five years in one of the toughest jobs in the Cabinet has shown him to been one of the unshowy, hardworking dependables that the Government can’t do without (as demonstrated in the reshuffle).

Unless a fully-developed Govian vision of the future can capture heart-and-minds, I’d expect control of the party to stay with the mainstream (though not, anymore, the MAYnstream).

The Tory right

In 2016, the Tory right finally got what they wanted – or did they? As explained above they haven’t got ‘their’ party back, despite the demise of the Cameroons. 

In the last leadership election, they failed to put up a viable candidate – doing even worse than in 2005. Looking ahead, I wouldn’t rule out David Davis as a contender; and, who knows, Liam Fox might have another go. However, that would require things to go very well on the Brexit front. It would also need the Tory right to articulate a post-Brexit vision capable of defeating the Corbynite fever-dream – and, so far, there’s little evidence of that.

What the Tory right really needs – and soon – are new faces. At some point they have to stop putting up Davis and/or Fox in leadership elections. So far the closest they’ve come to a viable alternative is Sajid Javid, but that would require the right to forgive him for supporting the wrong side on Brexit (and I think that the modernisers are more likely to forgive Michael Gove for the same ‘crime’). 

Liberals may weep and wail about the ‘extremism’ of the Conservative party, but the fact is that the Tory right hasn’t won the party leadership since 2001 or the country since 1979.


What about Jacob Rees-Mogg, I hear you cry? Isn’t he the man to revive Thatcherism in the 21st century? 

The short answer is ‘no’, but then who would have predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would very nearly win the last general election and become well-placed to win the next? 

It’s an interesting question whether what is now evidently possible on the left of British politics, is also possible on the right. Events in America suggest that it might be; but then Trump was running against Hillary Clinton – not an anti-establishment figure like Corbyn.

Rees-Mogg is also the most unlikely of populists. And yet he stands so far out of the ordinary that he might just be the man to succeed in extraordinary times. The key thing to watch out for is whether Moggmentum (16,800 followers for its Twitter incarnation) can develop anything like the organisational heft of Momentum (89,800 followers). 

Other tribes

Back in 2013, I described the old Tory left as a lost tribe of British politics. This hasn’t changed, they have no chance of winning the leadership. However, Brexit – which had appeared to represent their final defeat – has given them a new lease of life. With no government majority, the hardcore remainer rebels are a highly significant parliamentary force. We’ll have to see if they have any luck recruiting Damian Green and/or Justine Greening to their ranks.

And there’s a new Tory tribe in Westminster – the Scottish Conservatives. The election of 13 Tories north of the border is the only reason why we still have a Conservative Government. Well, not quite the only reason – the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party are also indispensible. The complex relationship between the unlikely triumvirate of Theresa May, Ruth Davidson and Arlene Foster, has become one of the most important in British politics. 

Outside of Parliamentary politics, it’s also worth mentioning the Red Tory philosophy of Phillip Blond and the Good Right ideas of Tim Montgomerie. With no sign of the Corbynite bubble bursting, the Conservative Party desperately needs to develop a serious agenda on the reform of capitalism. It’s a mission that Theresa May paid lip service to, while catastrophically failing to deliver on substantive policy (echoing the Big Society failure of David Cameron before her). If Ruth Davidson ever makes the big move to Westminster, it could be third time lucky. 

Finally, the most honourable of mentions to the palaeo-conservatives. Much as they’d expect, and perhaps prefer, they remain on the political sidelines. Sir Roger Scruton, Peter Hitchens and others do at least have the satisfaction of seeing their liberal enemies on the back foot. It’s not that true conservatives could ever support the likes of Donald Trump. Indeed, populism is not so much an alternative to liberalism, as its late-stage breakdown product. From the palaeo-conservative point of view, the world is still going to hell in a handcart – albeit a different handcart.