Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com.
The last eight years have not been happy ones for the Conservative Party.
Government is never easy, but the Cameron and May years have been unusually difficult – an era of absent or lost majorities, the weirdness of coalition, the long hard slog of austerity, the bitter in-fighting over Brexit. There must be those who half-wish we were still in opposition.
But what if we were? I went to a parallel universe to find out. Superficially, it’s a world not unlike like our own. Many of the names are the same, but don’t be fooled – these are different people, who made different decisions, with different consequences…
I’m sat with a Conservative MP who definitely doesn’t want to be named. So let’s just call him ‘Bob’.
We’re a long way from the Westminster bubble – and Bob’s constituency – but he looks around nervously as if expecting to be recognised.
He’s hardly a household name. That may change though – when, as seems likely, he becomes the first victim of a campaign to deselect ‘centrist’ Tories.
“I’m toast” Bob admits. “They’ve got the numbers, have had for months.”
Then he laughs. “It’s my own stupid fault of course – I nominated the old coot.”
A moment of explanation:
“They” are Impetus, the right-wing grassroots organisation.
The “old coot”, is Anthony Ravens – veteran right-winger and the surprise winner of the 2015 leadership contest. The irony is that it was moderate Tory MPs who put Ravens on the ballot paper.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. After the shock result of the 2015 general election – the fifth defeat in a row – the party desperately needed a meaningful leadership contest. But in the early stages it was shaping up to be a two horse race between Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd. With Anna Soubry representing the Clarkeites, it was felt that a right-winger was needed for balance. In the end, it was Ravens who put his name forward and moderate MPs, like Bob, who lent him their nominations.
“And that’s where it all went wrong…”
Well, I’m not so sure about that. In this world, ConservativeHome never existed – and, so in 2005, when Michael Howard moved to disenfranchise party members, he got his way. Under the new rules, Ken Clarke, with the support of ‘rising stars’ like David Cameron and George Osborne, was swiftly installed as leader.
The next five years had their ups and downs. Obviously, there was no “you were the future once” when Clarke faced Tony Blair for the first time at PMQs. But equally there was no “this is no time for a novice” from Gordon Brown in 2008. Then came the leaders’ debates in the 2010 general election. The contrast between Nick Clegg, the youthful leader of the Lib Dems, and the old stagers to his left and right changed the course of the campaign. Though Cleggmania faded a bit by polling day, Clarke never managed to regain the initiative.
The Conservatives were the biggest party, but the Lib Dems with 87 MPs were the undisputed kingmakers. Clarke sent his loyal lieutenants, Cameron and Osborne into the coalition negotiations. They failed. The result after five days was a centre-left coalition with David Miliband as Prime Minister.
The fury of the Conservative grassroots was turned upon the party’s old guard – and their young protégés. Boris Johnson was easily the most popular Conservative in the country, but, being only halfway through his first term as Mayor of London, he was unavailable for the leadership contest. However, his younger brother, Jo, was available.
Who better to blow away the cobwebs than a brand new MP, was the somewhat desperate reasoning. And so, standing for a fresh start, Jo Johnson became party leader. However, it soon became apparent that the younger Johnson, though a thoughtful and intelligent man, lacked his elder sibling’s razzamatazz. “The wrong brother” became an familiar taunt.
Meanwhile the Coalition Government, though initially popular, began to sink under the pressures of austerity. The Chancellor, Ed Balls, made the mistake of implementing Labour’s planned cuts to capital spending. He then tried to course correct with a programme of fiscal stimulus, only to retreat in the face of a very contagious sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone.
With a pro-austerity Chancellor and pro-EU Prime Minister, Labour’s poll ratings went into free-fall. The main beneficiary, however, was UKIP. After sweeping gains for Nigel Farage’s party in local elections, Labour MPs in the North and Midlands began to fear for their seats. In 2014, with immigration from Europe hitting a record high – and the threat of backbench defections – the party was facing disaster. Backed into a corner, the Labour leadership promised an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU.
It worked. The UKIP advance was halted and Tory divisions on Europe cruelly exposed. With the economy looking up, Labour went into the 2015 general election with a fighting chance (and the unspoken expectation that the promised referendum would be ‘sacrificed’ in the next round of coalition talks with the Lib Dems).
Except that the Lib Dems were wiped out. Furthermore, UKIP did well enough to block the Tories in scores of seats. In turn, the fear of a Conservative return to power was enough to keep Scotland in Labour hands. And so, almost by default, Labour won an unexpected majority .
Jo Johnson resigned straight away and went on holiday to Ibiza. Boris, having maintained a diplomatic distance from Westminster, was again unavailable as a replacement. David Cameron and George Osborne, damaged by the events of 2010, had both quit Westminster – as had most of their older rivals. Which was why the party was faced with a choice of Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd and, for the diehards, Anna Soubry.
Until, that is, Anthony Ravens scraped together the nominations to stand against them.
Up to that point, he was a largely forgotten figure – a reactionary ‘rentaquote’ backbencher from the 1980s who had somehow survived to the present day. Not one for select committees and the like, Ravens was much happier addressing groups of hardline Eurosceptics – long before rightwing populism became popular.
The impassioned speeches therefore came naturally to him – and while the other candidates toured Westminster studios, Ravens toured the country, drawing larger and larger crowds at every stop. Eventually, the brighter members of the Westminster commentariat worked out that a lot of these people had a vote in the upcoming contest.
I should have mentioned that in an attempt to stay relevant, the Party had reversed the Howard ‘reforms’ and embraced direct democracy. This included a registered supporters scheme which conferred the right to vote in candidate selection meetings and leadership contests.
Then there was Impetus, a ‘unite the right’ outfit that encouraged its Eurosceptic supporters to make full use of the registered supporters scheme. It now seems that around 35,000 people did just that – not a huge number, but given the long decline of the Conservative Party as a mass movement, it was enough. By the time the party establishment realised that Ravens might actually win, it was too late.
His first shadow cabinet contained a few old allies, but all shades of party opinion were represented. Despite Ravens’ eccentricities – such as the blunt political incorrectness of his front bench performances – the moderates were convinced they could contain the Ravenites.
But then came the referendum campaign of 2016. With the shadow cabinet deeply divided, the compromise was a free vote arrangement in which individuals could campaign as they wished, while the party would remain neutral. Ravens threw himself into the campaign – which culminated in a narrow, but clear, victory for Leave. Miliband, who had gambled and lost, resigned as Prime Minister.
Ravens also found himself under fire. He was accused of having campaigned too hard. If only he’d kept his head down, the referendum would have gone the other way, it was claimed.
For the remain majority in the shadow cabinet it was too much. Within days of the result, they staged a mass walkout. Ravens responded by appointing fellow hardliners – and indeed just about any MP willing to serve. This was followed by a vote of no-confidence from the Parliamentary Party and a second leadership contest. I would tell you who stood against him, but I can’t remember – nobody can. Anyway, thanks to the open membership rules, and the activities of Impetus, Ravens won a second, emphatic victory.
The new Prime Minister was Yvette Cooper, the long-serving Home Secretary. Though a remainer, she pledged to respect the result of referendum and to address the broader concerns of those who had voted for Brexit. Her One Nation tone contrasted to the smooth, metropolitan style of her predecessor – and proved immensely popular. As the Labour lead over a divided opposition got wider, the temptation to call an early election grew. With a three-figure majority she’d have a lot more leeway in the Brexit negotiations.
Meanwhile the evidence of Ravens’ unsavoury past was piling up: old sympathies for the apartheid regime in South Africa; meetings with Ulster Loyalists; a visit to an illegal settlement in the West Bank; a wreath laying ceremony at a survivalist compound in Idaho; membership of message boards where extreme anti-immigrant views were aired; apparent approval for a cartoon depicting refugees as parasites; paid appearances on TV channels controlled by dictatorial foreign governments; shared platforms with members of hard right political organisations. The list went on and on – as did the pathetic excuses.
All this and more was thrown at Ravens during the snap election of 2017 – but none of it seemed to stick. His enthusiastic campaigning compared well to Cooper’s charisma-free zone and to the botched launch of Labour’s manifesto. The result, which wiped out the Government’s majority, was a humiliation for Cooper – but also for the pundits who’d mocked Ravens’ strategy. It turns out that inspiring people is better than boring them to death.
Though he didn’t actually win, he became a symbol of resistance to an out-of-touch London elite. When a football crowd erupted into a chance of “Oh, Anthony Ravens!” it was clear that something big was happening.
The Ravenite grip on the Conservative Party is tightening every day. Impetus members are taking control of local associations across the country and manoeuvring to deselect MPs they see as unsound.
An impressive, but often abusive, online presence allows Ravenites to organise and communicate without relying on official party structures. Ravenite social media stars are invited on to the mainstream media – including one individual who declared herself to be “literally a fascist” (a statement that doesn’t appear to have harmed her career in anyway).
The most depressing thing is the passivity of the Tory moderates. There has been talk of a breakaway party, but so far little action. What are they waiting for?
Before 2017, there was a case for waiting for Ravenism to self-destruct. That’s a vain hope, now. Another reason for sticking around is to influence Brexit – with the Parliamentary arithmetic very tight, every vote will count. Not a bad excuse, but a time-limited one.
Of course, not all the ‘moderates’ are that moderate. Some are principled right-wingers, who might not like Ravens, but see him as their best chance of achieving the change they want to see. That, in my view, is a very dangerous game. Barry Goldwater once said that extremism in defence of liberty is no vice. He was wrong. Extremism and principled democratic politics are two different things and the former is ultimately toxic to the latter.
The final reason is sheer bloodymindedness. Why should lifelong Conservatives quit their party because an extreme faction has hijacked it? Isn’t that what the Ravenites want the moderates to do? Well, fair enough – but staying put should look like resistance not surrender. To keep one’s integrity, regular acts of dissent are required. That of course will attract the ire of the extremists, which is why integrity must be bolstered by solidarity. The moderates must not allow themselves to be picked off one-by-one.
As Bob says, “we have to hang together or we’ll hang separately.” Time will tell which option they go for.
I fear that a lot of the moderates are letting their braver colleagues take most of the flak. I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed in my fellow Conservatives.
But, of course, these are not my fellow Conservatives – but those of a parallel universe. I realise it’s time to go home. I say my goodbyes and leave Bob to the dregs of his coffee.
The next day, I wake up realising that I’m back in this world. Just to make sure, I Google “Anthony Ravens” and find there is no Tory politician by that name. Phew!
Still, it’s something to think about: Are there any circumstances in which someone as far to the right as Jeremy Corbyn is to the left could become leader of the Conservative Party?
Could an experiment with direct democracy go badly wrong? If the lunatics took over the asylum what would we do about it? Resist? Break away? Give up? Sit on our hands? Make common cause?
Of course in this world – in this Britain – the extreme left is excused in a way that the extreme right isn’t. The hypocrisy is sickening, but in some respects we should be grateful for it.