Concluding our series on Britain’s parties of power. Today, we bring it all home.
9. The Tory right
The rightwing of the Conservative Party sees itself as principled, resolute and steadfast. Its enemies, however, see it as dogmatic, fanatical and bloody-minded. Both sides are wrong. The Tory right is, in fact, a protean mass of constantly shifting and contradictory opinions – which is exactly as it should be.
Of course, individual rightwingers do have some very firmly held principles – it’s just that they don’t hold them in common. Thus on foreign policy you’ll find a complete spectrum of rightwing opinion from neo-con interventionism to palaeo-con isolationism. On economic policy, fiscal conservatives duke it out with supply-side tax-cutters. Meanwhile, on social issues, let-it-all-hang-out libertarians brush past less-than-impressed social conservatives.
You won’t find much philosophical coherence either. While many rightwingers proudly identify with the Tory label, others declare themselves to be Whigs. Indeed, one could make a credible case that there’s more intellectual diversity on the Tory right than in the rest of the mainstream political spectrum put together.
Looking at it another way, the Tory right is where its OK to question the received wisdom – which is a good thing. The not-so-good thing is that some rightwingers don’t allow for the possibility that the received wisdom is occasionally correct (especially when it has a scientific basis).
Of course, one can’t talk about Conservative rightwingers without mentioning Margaret Thatcher. A year on from the great lady’s passing, she provides one of the few truly unifying points of reference for the Tory right. With the historical context of her actions in office receding into the past, it is her style of leadership that now provides the greatest inspiration.
Yet there’s an irony here too: which is that the Tory right is really bad at finding leaders worthy of the Leaderene’s example. With the exception of 2001, the right has lost (or didn’t even contest) all the leadership elections since Margaret Thatcher’s fall. This isn’t the result of some conspiracy, just the fact that the right put up the wrong candidates. In 1995, John Major told his internal critics to “put up or shut up.” Two decades on, the Conservative Party is still waiting for a convincing answer.
The twentieth anniversary of Major’s defiant words could well coincide with the next Tory leadership contest – and yet again the Tory right may be left without a credible candidate. If you look at the betting odds for the next Conservative leader, not one of the leading candidates can be described as a full-on rightwinger. All are either modernisers (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, George Osborne) or mainstreamers (Theresa May, Phillip Hammond, William Hague).
There are some bright hopes for the future though – especially among the 2010 intake of MPs. The likes of Liz Truss and Sajid Javid will keep the right in the game for a long time to come. And if Dan Hannan ever escapes from Brussels, then he too would make a formidable and fascinating candidate.
I, for one, look forward to the 2020 leadership contest between Dan Hannan and Jesse Norman (see below) – though it might be an idea if their campaign slogans are translated from the original Latin.
Past glories: 4/5 (all of these points earned by one woman)
Current position: 3/5
Post 2015: 2/5
Long-term prospects: 3/5
10. The Tory mainstream
And so to the last, but not the least, of our ruling tribes. For want of a better name, we’ve called it the Tory mainstream – by which we mean what’s left of the Conservative Party after you take out the Tory right (see above) and the Tory modernisers (see yesterday).
It’s a bit of mixed bag to be honest, but there’s some great stuff in there, which we’ll come on to. But before that, a quick mention of what’s not in there: namely, the Old Tory Left. As we noted last year, the Wets have evaporated into thin air – something to do with them being proved completely and utterly wrong on Europe, apparently.
Liberated from the rule of Europhile grandees, the Tory mainstream is once again free to follow its own course. This really matters because long before the distractions of EU membership, the advent of Thatcherism or the rise of the modernisers, it was One Nation conservatism that allowed the Conservative Party to survive into the 20th century and save Britain from a socialist future.
With the right still preoccupied with Europe, it falls to the mainstream to think of England (and, if it survives, the rest of the UK too). Just as well, then, that they’ve got some good thinkers.
It says something about the thought-averse Cameroons that they’ve left the parliamentary party’s cleverest Old Etonian – Jesse Norman – on the backbenches. Also keeping the green leather shiny is Robert Halfon, who despite his scandalous lack of a government job, is busy campaigning as if the working class vote mattered.
The two MPs couldn’t be more be different in style and approach, but they really ought to collaborate. A fusion of Burkean philosophy and Disraelian populism would be a potent combination for a 21st century Conservative Party.
As with the Tory right, the next leadership contest will probably come too early for the 2010 intake of mainstream Tory MPs. However, the time would be ripe for an older MP with ministerial experience. He – or, quite possibly, she – wouldn’t have to be the flashy sort, but they would need to pull together a team of party’s brightest young things in pretty short order. This will require some fancy political footwork as well as sound ministerial competence, so it’s quite possible that it won’t happen.
But, then again, it may.
Past glories: 5/5
Current position: 4/5
Post 2015: 3/5
Long-term prospects: 4/5