The headlines this weekend make depressing reading for millions of Conservative voters, activists and MPs alike.
We may have reached a tipping point as it looks increasingly as though we have entered a situation similar to that of the worst of John Major’s catastrophic 'back to basics' days.
As with most things in life, it’s not a single issue but ‘events’ which are threatening to overtake us. It is a depressing situation for the PCC candidates and activists up and down the country, for the team fighting the Corby by-election and for party members everywhere who have felt detached from the party since we went into coalition and allowed the Liberal Democrat tail to wag the dog.
Andrew Mitchell’s long and slow political death has been a disastrous lesson in how not to manage a crisis. Many of us wondered how much public humiliation Mitchell would allow the Prime Minister to continue to heap on him before he cracked and resigned. I believe that it wasn’t the amicable meeting of the ’22 which did for Mitchell, it was PMQs earlier in the day as he sat red faced, inches from the Prime Minister. It must have been sheer willpower that kept him in his seat.
It was surely in the hot and febrile arena of the Chamber that Mitchell passed over the barrier of tolerance and broke. As Cameron, in full view of Mitchell’s assembled peers from all parties and the packed press gallery, publicly humiliated and denounced him as though he were a reprehensible school boy.
At PMQs, Cameron stripped away every last vestige of authority and respect from Mitch. He left him with nothing. Not a shred of respect or capability to resurrect his authority and to tackle his role as Chief Whip. It was an unprecedented situation, but to those who know how party discipline works, the minute Cameron spat out the words he did across the dispatch box to Milliband, Mitchell was indeed finally toast – and he knew it.
Those who blame the meeting of the ’22 are choosing to ignore the more human element of how Mitch must have felt in that situation and have not asked themselves, how much kicking can a man take when he is down before he breaks?
If the Prime Minister had decided to stand by his man, then he should have done so in a way which was robust and loyal, or cut him loose and sack him as soon as the details of the incident became headline news. Back him or sack him is more than just a cliché, it has meaning. To back someone is a pro-active position and requires action and support. To keep Mitchell in office whilst at the same time publicly chastising him was a display of confused weakness.
If the Police officers Mitchell had spoken to had felt aggrieved, they would have launched an official complaint, they didn’t, they accepted Mitchell’s apology. That in itself raises questions. Why, as they had the overwhelming support of the Fed, who must have applied pressure to lodge a complaint, didn’t they? They would have become national heroes. But it wasn’t the offended officers running Mitchell out of office, it was a union, a national newspaper and finally, his own self-respect.
Mitchell has gone, but things aren’t going to improve. In a week of depressing events, the fundamental values of the Prime Minister and Chancellor are frequently in question.
Last week, I looked out of the window and down into the atrium in Portcullis House. I witnessed one unhappy MP after another, hands thrust deep into pockets; head down walking across the arena. Some had been sacked, others not promoted, some with no chance of promotion because they don’t move in the right circles and have realised that’s what powers you up the greasy pole.
George Osborne and David Cameron surround themselves with a hand-picked coterie of well-bred and well placed MPs. The jobs for the boys system which allowed both men to progress through the party based not on what but who they knew is already in place to bring through the next generation of little Dave’s and George’s. Many MPs in the modern party find this behaviour both arrogant and unacceptable in a modern, meritocratic Britain.
Unfortunately, it is that brooding resentment which may lead the party into even darker waters yet.