Tories were rats being drowned in a bucket, it would be neither water nor bucket
that would bother them, but whether a Clarkeite's blanched belly bobbed to the
surface first. The most recent example of this came after l'affaire Cummings,
when the party's newly appointed director of strategy choose to reveal the innermost
thinking of the party on the Euro to the politically hostile Independent.
That he talked about it at all would have been odd, even if what he had said were
wise, or delivered to the right audience, as easily the most sensible thing this
leadership has done since coming to power has been to clamp down 'debate' (cf.
rancorous, useless poison) on matters European. Of course, in this they have been
greatly assisted by the fact that the pro-European wing of the Tory party received
a championship toeing last summer. However, the specifics of the Cummings
business, and the nature of Conservative reaction to it, tells us a fair amount
about where the Tory party now stands on Europe, and really, it's no better than
it was when it took us in.
Cummings was purloined from the No campaign
to become Iain Duncan Smith's Mister Ideas. His job is not so much to generate
them – that belongs to the party's director of policy, Greg Clark – but to act
as a sort of intellectual capo, making the case for the ideas the leadership
comes to consider itself as believing in. His job therefore is to persuade
across the party bureaucracy. And that is what his most recent foray into the
public prints is being treated as: Mr Cummings gave an on-the-record interview
to a liberal newspaper in which he said, the Tory Party will take a back seat
in any referendum on British accession to the Euro as the Tory brand is so compromised
that we might actually detract, by our very presence, from the pro-Sterling case.
This has caused great ructions in the wider Tory family, and as far as comment
upon it is concerned, one of the functional debates that this is supposed to illuminate
is the division between the zesty director of strategy and the gnarled director
of media. This latter gentleman, a fellow by the name of Nick Wood, is presented,
by proponents of what is held to be the Cummings position, as a dead hand on the
tiller who would carelessly repeat the failures of the Hague regime. As ever,
such talk is politics, but to see the nature of the politics at hand, we have
to look at the people talking.
intra-Tory fights occur, the most useful place to look to see why people are tearing
strips off each other (in other words, where you can most clearly see evidence
of a battle as having taken place) is in the two Telegraph titles, the
daily and the Sunday sister. This is for the simple reason that 'journalists'
at the Telegraph, to quote the first Elizabeth, are apt to forget whose
collars they are wearing: so many harbour direct parliamentary ambitions themselves,
or are otherwise inclined to put the interests of the party before those of Conrad,
that the resultant tension habitually provides in microcosm a neat little essay
as to the wider conflict to hand. The Cummings rumpus is a classic of this genre.
All the worst sins of the paper were on offer, from the witless
vulgarity of its leader columns, through the cheesy
partisanship of its news pages, all the way to the feather-brained
snobbery of columnists with husbands who want into the House, every element
of the bigger feud is there to be discerned.
start with what Dominic Cummings said. First of all, he said it to the Independent,
actually, first of all, he said it – to a newspaper. If the thinking of the leadership
is that, to win a referendum on the Euro it is essential that Iain Duncan Smith
doesn't show his unlovely face, this may be accurate and laceratingly honest,
but is it honesty that one shares with the media? surely not. Indeed, a strong
case can be made that if there ever is a referendum on the Euro a key foolishness
that will be traceable back to Mr Cumming's jejune outburst is that, what
will the media narrative of the campaign likely turn out to be? Simply, 'whither
the Tories?' If the Conservative party is seen not to be campaigning, a hostile,
left-liberal press will rightly seize this as an opportunity to scream, 'you can't
even act on a core raison d'être of your party'; and if they do campaign
overtly, well then the media will turn round and say, 'and of course the Euro is
greatly assisted, as they themselves admit, by the presence of Messrs.
Duncan Smith, Tebbit and Thatcher on the side of the Pound'.
this was a licensed exercise, given that no reprimand has been suffered by Mr
Cummings? Perhaps he was flying a kite? Well, grim pessimists as to the leadership
of Mr Duncan Smith would attribute, albeit skewed, rationality, to that. Their
take would be: this is a 2-way bet, he's setting himself up to lose, what he wants
to be able to do is say, 'look we've lost, it's nothing to do with me, let's move
on'. This sounds plausible solely because it's thinking sufficiently silly to
be attractive to the current leadership of the Tory party. For let's not be in
any doubt about this, if ever there is a referendum on the Euro, the side that
loses will see the ritual disembowelling of its leadership immediately thereafter.
Which is to say, even if he wanted to, there is no way for Mr Duncan Smith to
put clear blue water between him and any defeat on the Euro. That many Tories
are a lot more sceptical about their chances of winning any referendum should
not be discounted: the last, and indeed, only national referendum on European
policy in Britain started off with the Sceptics of the day commanding a 2/3 advantage
in the polls, which by the time people actually voted saw them reduced to a mere
1/3 of reality. The certitude that 'respectable' Britain, from BBC to big business,
would pile in behind the Euro is a chastening thought for Tories.
– that this was all a well thought-out gambit – is, I suspect,
to make the mistake of attributing forethought and competence
and coherence where none exists. Because of the lack of co-ordination
in the Tory leadership (which is to say, people like Dominic Cummings
can gaily freelance in their media pronouncements without the
invigilation of the director of media) no one was to hand to say,
'er, wait a moment, what's going to be the consequence
of saying this?'; because of the calibre of the people involved,
there, evidently, was less than perfect understanding of, 'since
I am in no way constrained by sensible structures, should
I say the things that have just popped into my head whilst a hostile
hack is sitting opposite me with a tape recorder?'; and because
the present leadership of the party is trying desperately to claim
that it is moving meaningfully in one direction, whilst neither
doing so nor knowing where such a path would take it if it did,
there is no voice within to whisper, 'why should I say
this, that or the other?'
understand what Dominic Cummings said, I think one should very
firmly locate him in his past, as director of the No
Campaign. This was formed as the very sensible means by which
British opponents of the Euro would resist, in the absence of
effective Tory opposition, its substitution for the pound. Its
method from the very beginning has been to separate itself from
party politics, and present itself as primarily being a bunch
of stolid, mildly patriotic business folk, who can't quite see
why we, with our immensely successful economy, should subject
ourselves to the upheaval of dumping our own currency and picking
up someone else's. In short, their strategy, as any leading member,
past or present, will cheerfully admit to you, has been one of
deterrence – they will win, i.e., keep the pound, if the
government (which knows full well the sure political consequences
of picking and losing such an inherently optional fight) doesn't
contest the matter.
how will the Tory party win itself office again? By war a outrance, indeed,
a la baionette. The Tory party wants there to be the carnage of
a referendum (risky and terrifying as it assuredly would be) as this is the way
to way to effect a climactic victory over Labour. In short, Mr Cumming's undisciplined
words were a reflection of his old beliefs, rather those suitable to his job now.
If that accounts for why he said what he said, what should we make of the fight
that others formed, quite autonomously, off the back of his loose words?
as any Tory should, launch into this by way of class warfare.
The sheer stand-out snobbery of this fight, regardless of what
it's for, and who it's between, has been a joy to behold. Writing
in The Sunday Telegraph, the paper's deputy editor,
Matthew d'Ancona, a Portilloite, latched onto the innocent figure
of Mr Cummings as his champion because, 'he speaks (all the time)
in a thick Durham accent'. You have to admit that that 'all the
time' is especially impressive – this clever fellow never lets
it drop, not even for an instant! In truth – and leaving
to one side the fact that Dominic Cummings is not encumbered
with a 'thick Durham accent' – the preposterous nature of
this as evidence on behalf of the Portilloite
prosecution of reaction is agreeably, familiarly hysterical.
Is that the best they can do to commend their arguments, that
they're supposedly conducted with a [stand back and gasp] regional
accent? Yup. Far more insidious, in that they fearfully hide
behind unsigned, unregulated leader comment, is what the editorialist
of The Daily Telegraph has chiefly had to say.
Cummings' unwise, unprofessional and inconsistent pensée was
grabbed by the Telegraph's leader column as part of the war, unnoticed
by either editor or readership, about selection of Tory candidates. Explicitly
it was about, 'impediments to Tory modernisation', but really it (opposition to
the views of Mr Cummings, or the fact that he had expressed them) was about lumpen
rejection of the high Portilloite truth that what voters reject about Toryism
is not Toryism per se, but Tories. This argument is always tricky for Portilloites
to make as the Tories the electorate has taken great care to decapitate in recent
years have been, starting with Michael Portillo himself, well, Portilloites. Very
quickly, the Portilloite analysis is, entirely justified self-hate unfairly displaced
to the wider party, allied to knowing deceit about their intentional abandonment
of never congenial Tory principles: if one were an American, one would abuse them
by calling them [hiss!] neo-cons. Anyway, that is separate to the business of
this column, suffice it to say, the merits of the interview Dominic Cummings gave
to The Independent, were neither here nor there as far as the Telegraph
was concerned, what mattered was that to abuse Cummings was to stake yourself
out against modernisation, and modernisation is to be honestly translated as,
the selection of the right people as parliamentary candidates. And here we return
to what certain Telegraph journalists see for themselves after journalism.
eternity ago, I said that the ultimate lesson to be gleaned from all this is that,
whatever else the Tory party is concerned with, the one thing it's not up for
is reversing its decision to take Britain into European political structures.
The nature of the fratricidal fights on European matters are now more than ever
merely weapons in the fight about non-ideological factional predominance, and
the key terrain on which that battle is being fought is, 'modernisation' versus
whatever one is if one doesn't believe in modernisation (a word does spring to
mind). Next week, I want, despite the seeming futility of it in the Tory party
as presently led, to write about Britain after Europe. That is to say, the modalities
of the UK leaving the EU – and it's as sexy as that subclause makes it sound.
Goldstein, late of this parish, has
written usefully about the need for at least some Tories to come out as opponents
of our continued membership of the EU, if only thereby to legitimise mere scepticism
about the specific nature of our ongoing membership. None have – and despite every
smear of liberal big media, nothing could be further from the minds of the responsible
folk who end up leading the Conservative party. However, since I hold that a broad
coalition like the Tory party can only hold together for as long as the non-conservatives
/neo-conservatives within it, are there for whatever weird reasons of their own,
and are not themselves the predominate voice, crisis is coming. Very soon, if
a leadership divorced from the led, manages to make it apparent that they are
intent upon casting off conservatism, the ironic but predictable consequence will
be that the unTory incubus, foolishly triumphant, will be recognised and expelled.
So, next week, as, and sooner than one might have thought, there might be an instrument
to hand to make this realistic talk, we will consider the what, the where, the
when and the why of Britain quitting Europe.