June 10, 2002

What Are We Fighting For?
Tories and Europe

If 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.

Dominic 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.

When 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.

Let's 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'.

Maybe 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 – 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?'

To 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.

Conversely, 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?

Let's, 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.

Dominic 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.

An 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.

Emmanuel 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.

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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