As you know, this website’s relationship with the Times is never less than harmonious – you will have read its leader on Monday about our manifesto – and it’s in that happy spirit that I write to you. Or am I deceiving myself? Am I, rather, “bitter, angry and zealous?” I ask because I want to leave the European Union – along, by the way, with a big slice of Tory MPs (a fifth? a third?), perhaps a majority of party members (we can argue the polls back and forth), and at least two members of the Cabinet. Am I thus one of the “Europhobes” – as you labelled them yesterday during your discussion with Mark Wallace on the Daily Politics yesterday – who want to lose the coming election so that a “newer, purer, more right-wing, more anti-European Conservative Party can emerge”?
It seems that I may be. After all, I can’t deny being one of those “elements of ConservativeHome”, as you described them, who are “being very careful not to attack Douglas Carswell” – by which I think you mean not being rude about his motives, character, and mind. You certainly can’t mean failing to criticise him for leaving the Conservatives and joining UKIP – whose policies are even more flawed than its people, (and goodness knows that’s saying something): we’ve done so.
Attacking – in other word, insulting – him would be entertaining, but there is no benefit in doing so, other than making a few of us feel better. As things stand, he is set to win his by-election. I hope he doesn’t. (For the record, I like him, admire him, disagree with him…and am amused by him, in more or less equal measure.) But he has shown courage in calling the poll, and it can’t fairly be claimed otherwise. Some MPs leave one party to join another. Few put their pensions on the line in doing so, and his constituents know it. They would laugh claims to the contrary to scorn. A Conservative campaign that fights clean may still see Carswell make his way back to Westminster. One that sneers at him would see him borne in triumph there athwart a sedan chair.
Tosh, you may say. Stuff and nonsense. A diversion to drown out the “dog-whistling coming from ConservativeHome” (as you put it yesterday), which wants Cameron to lose the election, Miliband to win it, and ConKip to rise vulture-like from the psephological ashes.
I confess that there would be just enough plausibility in the charge to obscure the untruth within it. As a hack, I would rather like Miliband to make it. Labour Governments are great fun for Tory journalists, since they can bash them to their hearts’ content and help to shape the new Conservative Opposition, or try. This would hold true for ConservativeHome, for the Telegraph and Mail stables and maybe, dare I say so, for you too.
But hacks are also citizens. And as one, I don’t want a Miliband Government; what it would mean for me, for the country. I know in my bones that it would all end in tears, as dear old Brian Mawhinney used to say about Tony Blair. I should probably fear it more. There needs to be a bit more alarm-raising; more Pinning Down Miliband. There will be more on this site as next May draws nearer. I hope that there will be elsewhere, too.
It may all not work and, if so, there is a lesson from 1997. The Tory phoenix doesn’t always rear triumphantly from the smoke: he took 13 years to do so after that defeat, and even then didn’t struggle fully clear of it. I am not charmed by the lure of defeat, or convinced that it can be warded off by the unworkable and misconceived Tory-UKIP pact. But I want the Conservatives to take votes both from their left and right: that’s what election-winning Tory leaders have always done, isn’t it? I want to see the parts of UKIP that may come to realise that permanent opposition gets nothing done slowly peeled off. The Conservative Party has a bit of a history of closing down threats from its right as well as its left.
Mock this as a vain hope if you wish. Perhaps so, but I’m scarcely alone in having it. Hope that the Party can reach out to the right and the centre, that it can somehow survive the Billingsgate of an In-Out referendum campaign, that it will avoid the Corn Laws and Protection all over again, that it can defy grisly demographics to win, that all will be well and old acquaintance won’t be forgot…this, surely, is where most MPs and Party members stand and I with them (for what it’s worth): in the belief we are still somehow part of the same family. This is the sometimes-not-so-silent Tory majority. This is the mainstream.
Do you stand with it? Your hurl the charge of bitterness, anger and zealotry at the Right. Last Saturday, your column ended with “this message to Mr Carswell and his crew. Go to Ukip by all means. And stay there.” That sounds to me more like filing for divorce than preparing for it. I don’t know about bitterness, but there was certainly anger there (righteous anger, you will say). Am I unfair to think that there’s a touch of the Z-word too? That there can be a Breitbartism of spirit on the Tory Left as well as the Right?
You’d be entitled to hurl that accusation back at us, perhaps after a little light trawling of this site. So I will get my admission in first. Yes, I did write that David Cameron was in danger of being likened to Lord North – and more; much more. But then again, you’ve occasionally been just a bit sharp about him too. Perhaps this is the effect that turning to journalism has on former members of Parliament (we are a small though growing club). Or perhaps you just know too much. But this is so or not, let me cast aside my trusty dog-whistle, and speak in a way that anyone who cares to listen can hear. I do think that Cameron has bungled the management of his Party, that Carswell’s defection has something to do with it – and that this flaw may find him out.
One more thing. Some of us are journalists and all of us are citizens and some of us are Party members. It’s as one of the latter, too, that I don’t want Miliband to win. But I am beginning to wonder if not wanting him to win is enough for all of us: if the quarrels, resentments and grievances of the long years since 1990 – the heaped-up burden of time – will collapse “the oldest and most successful political party in the history of the world” beneath its weight, perhaps sooner rather than later. “This long war of words and writings will end in blows,” warned Erasmus. The violence of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation followed, and the horror of the 30 Years War. “My Party,” you called it yesterday. But it isn’t yours: it’s ours. If it lasts. The question is unavoidable. Does the Conservative Party really want to stay together?
P.S: “Elements” to you, too.