Intermittent attempts to get an anti-Cameron revolt, or the perception of one, running within the Conservative Party have met with remarkably little success over the years. There have been various supposed hooks – the EU, same sex marriage, climate change policy and so on – but the recurrent theme in media reports is supposedly that “the Right” is set to take the Prime Minister on.
This is always a sure sign that the plot in question lives rather more in the imagination than in the Palace of Westminster. For a start, as Peter Franklin noted this week in his series on the ruling tribes of British politics, Cameronism is itself partially rooted in the rightward end of the party (how often we forget the sight of the Prime Minister’s mentor, Oliver Letwin, fleeing the press after advocating spending cuts in 2001).
More fundamentally, the reporting of supposed plots wrongly assumes that there is such a beast as “the Right” – or, to be more specific, it assumes that there is just one beast going by that name.
Take, for example, James Forsyth’s story in today’s Mail on Sunday about the aftermath of a possible UKIP victory in May:
‘The Right is even now readying its demands. A Minister influential with this wing warns: ‘The Right will be robust in pushing the party to reflect the realities of defeat.’ The Right will also want its people promoted in the reshuffle expected afterwards.’
I’ve no doubt that a Minister made such a statement, and that that Minister believes him/herself to be a key figure in “the Right”, but it’s a misleading way of looking at things. If “the Right” was to make a set of demands and have “its people” promoted, which Right are we talking about?
By my count there are at least five different schools of thought that could be thought of as some kind of right within the Conservative Party – and they are variously overlapping or contradictory:
- The eurosceptics – particularly the Better Off Out group of MPs, including Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone and Peter Bone.
- The Whigs – the philosophical radicals, such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who want fundamental reform in the structure and function of the state to increase freedom and reduce taxes
- The campaigners – people such as Rob Halfon, Jesse Norman and John Baron, who have turned their backbench fastness into a raiding base, using the press and social media to devastating effect in order to, respectively, cut fuel duty, save billions on PFI and cause endless worries about defence cuts
- The paternalists – MPs like Claire Perry and Sarah Wollaston are often assumed to be on the left of the party, but on social issues such as online pornography, smoking or unhealthy food they are top-down paternalists in a distinctly crusty tradition
- The rest – from those whose religion led them to oppose same sex marriage to those who, like Steve Baker, champion radical economics, there are a myriad of other facets which could be validly referred to as part of “the Right”
If the anonymous Minister James spoke to genuinely intends to marshal “the Right”, they are taking on an impossible task. They would be well advised to set their sights on an easier gig – a new career as a herder of cats, or perfecting the art of nailing jellies to walls, perhaps.
Most would agree that I’m on the Right of the party – as a Better Off Outer, a deficit and tax hawk, and a direct democrat – but as a libertarian I wouldn’t support a rebellion against equal marriage rights for gay people. Similarly, while Carswell and Davies agree with each other on the EU, they disagree completely about ID cards and the database state. There are MPs who support Claire Perry’s internet censorship attempts and oppose same sex marriage, often for religious reasons, and who are therefore on some kind of Right, but would only count as the mildest kind of eurosceptic.
The list of points of disagreement could go on without end – the fact is, the organic nature of British Conservatism means there is no simple left vs right division in the way that some suppose there must be. There are even more ideological positions on the backbenches than there are clubs and groups. (For that matter, there may be more ideological positions on the backbenches than there are MPs.)
That is the reason these perennial stories about “the Right” rising up and overthrowing Cameron always come to naught, if indeed they had any substance to begin with. If David Cameron was to be unseated one day, the knife would not be wielded by a body called “the Right” – for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.