By Tim Montgomerie
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THE TEA PARTY TORIES?
Ian Birrell is not a cardboard cut out Cameroon. The former speechwriter to the Tory leader is a constant critic of the aid budget. He supports far-reaching reform of the NHS. He advocates decriminalisation of drugs. He is one of the most compelling of Fleet Street's columnists and two weeks ago he warned George Osborne that any change to the 50p tax rate could have devastating consequences for the Tory Party's electoral standing. He will feel somewhat vindicated today.
I have to take issue with his piece in today's Guardian, however, in which he launches an all-out attack on what he calls "The Tea Party Tories". To be fair to Ian he says that the Tory leadership hasn't handled the last fortnight well but the main theme of his piece is his anger towards the Tory Right. Unhappiness with centre right newspapers and MPs also reflects the mood in Number 10. Two of the PM's most senior advisers have told me that they are getting no credit from the 'conservative family' for the good things that David Cameron's administration is doing. Worryingly, their reaction to recent difficulties seems to consist of more anger at critics than reflection on their own shortcomings.
But let's focus on Ian Birrell's piece. I quote a few of his arguments below and my reactions are in pink italics afterwards:
- "Swing voters in marginal seats win elections. The fact that it does demonstrates the danger of the Conservative party falling victim to the same fate that befell the Republicans, of tacking to the right to appease loudmouths. It is a recipe for electoral disaster." What does "tacking to the Right" mean and who are these "loudmouths"? Are we talking about David Davis and the civil libertarianism he has championed? Iain Duncan Smith and the fact that the 'Right' led the renewal of the Party's one nation tradition? Or does Ian Birrell mean 'right-wing' Bernard Jenkin and his call for an end to the Eurozone's screwing of the Greek people? Or right-wing Norman Tebbit and his support for taking the low-paid out of the income tax system? Or perhaps right-wing Mark Pritchard and his campaigning for animal welfare? Or Nadine Dorries and her support for higher council tax bands so we can cut tax on the low-paid?
- "Supporters claim to speak for ordinary people and seek tougher action on crime, on Europe, and on immigration – despite the lessons of the past, when banging on about such issues scared away moderate voters worried about jobs, schools and hospitals." What are these "lessons of the past"? Previous elections didn't prove that Tory policies on crime, Europe and immigration were unpopular but they did suggest that parties with narrow obsessions are unpopular. Few on the Right complain about the Conservative Party showing a commitment to "jobs, schools and hospitals". The Right has enthusiastically cheered Gove's school reforms and also Lansley's NHS reforms (in my view the latter were too much). The Conservative Party is at its best when it occupies the whole political stage and the Cameroons lost the last election because, in part, they neglected traditional Tory themes while they were emphasising newer ones.
- "This Tory version of the Tea Party movement calls for deeper cuts in public spending while urging tax cuts for the rich and opposing the removal of child benefit for high earners." Ian Birrell makes a fair point here. Too many on the Right seem more worried about the high marginal tax rates facing the wealthy than facing the poor. This is not true of IDS, however, or people like John Redwood. ConHome's own recommendation for faster cuts in public spending was built on a recommendation to fund crisis tax relief for the low-paid. The reason the Right want faster spending cuts is because we are almost certainly at the 'taxable saturation point' and the only alternative to more robust spending reductions is a tax burden that kills the job-creating sector.
- ""They oppose gay marriage and efforts to include ethnic minorities in the national debate, exemplified by harsh criticism of Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi. "Just as the Tea Party attacks on Obama tip over into racism, so we see the same thing with Sayeeda," said one key insider. "It doesn't smell quite right, and wouldn't be happening if she were a white man."" Gosh. Some of Sayeeda Warsi's critics may be racist but this is just a smear. Sayeeda Warsi's critics are not, in all of my experience, racist. They simply worry that she's not very good at the job and in a number of interviews she has floundered badly. The fact is, Downing Street uses Michael Fallon when difficult economic or donor issues are at the top of the news agenda. They do so because he wasn't plucked from obscurity after failing to win his parliamentary seat and he understands policy detail. Not because he's white.
- "The coalition is doing so many things they sought: reforming welfare, opening up the school system, forcing competition in the health service, tackling public-sector pensions and reducing the deficit. But it is never enough – just as with the militants who wrecked Labour in the 80s, and the zealots who made John Major's life a misery in the 90s. "Most parties go bonkers when out of power," said a Downing Street source. "Our base goes bonkers when we're in power." Ian Birrell is correct to say that some of us could do more to acknowledge the good things that the Coalition is doing. I listed Cameron's ten biggest achievements yesterday. But he misses one big thing and that's the fact that only one thing really matters and that's whether this Coalition fixes the economy. The Right may be wrong but it's perfectly legitimate for people like me or The Telegraph or Fraser Nelson to worry that the spending cuts are too slow, the tax rises are too fast and the growth measures are coming too late in the parliamentary cycle.
- "Tea Party types seek a return to their mythical golden age of Thatcher, ignoring the lessons of her pragmatism. So once again we hear tedious calls for a revival of grammar schools, forgetting that more closed under her tenure than at any other time. It is selection of teachers we need, not pupils." On this I agree 100% with Ian. We remember the Iron Lady's strengths and forget her pragmatism. Her government was also very unpopular after two years in power and she never touched the NHS or schools or the BBC or the welfare state – certainly not until very late in her premiership. And amen to his point about selecting teachers.
Ian names just one person in his whole piece – Norman Tebbit. He writes:
"It was no surprise to see Norman Tebbit, long an enemy of compassionate conservatism, so quick to attack (like a shark smelling blood in the water) when the government wobbled."
I disagree with Norman on issues like gay marriage but he's not an "enemy of compassionate conservatism". The former Tory Chairman supports principal planks of this Government's policies including free schools, taking the poor out of income tax and introducing a universal credit to make work pay. Without some more names I'm inclined to believe that these Tea Party Tories are more a caricature than real.
I don't pretend that the Right is perfect. Sometimes, some right-wingers give the impression that they'd rather live in the 1950s. They are anti-government in all its forms rather than advocates of small government. They take strident views on overseas aid, ignoring the fact that some of it is wasteful and corrupting but much of it transformational and life-saving. They are opposed to rebalancing the tax system so that it is fairer to today's wealth creators rather than yesteryear's. Too many of the worst views, frankly, often inhabit ConHome threads. Nonetheless I don't believe that Ian Birrell's Tea Party Tories (a phrase, I think, that was first popularised by Chris Huhne) exist in significant numbers or in influential places.