By Bow Group Chairman Ben Harris-Quinney
When the Chequers White Paper was announced a long standing Conservative Party member said to me: “I sat through modernisation, I sat through gay marriage, I sat through council tax rises and a decline in services, I sat through a doubling of the debt, social care tax and even a proposed rise in general taxation, but if the Conservative Party makes a fudge of Brexit I cannot think of a single purpose it continues to serve.”
Support for the Conservative Party is a mile wide and a millimetre deep, and so every stutter-step it makes plunges it into an existential crisis which is now its natural state.
Brexit was a golden opportunity to reconnect with a genuine movement. Despite the referendum campaign being dominated by senior Conservative cabinet ministers predicting a Leave vote would cause the collapse of civilisation, to his minor credit a defeated David Cameron acknowledged that a Brexit result needed a Brexit government. Instead what we got was a Macbethian piece of theatre in place of a leadership election, after which rank and file members were presented by default with another establishment Remain-supporting leader, and a 75 per cent Remain-supporting cabinet.
It is the product of a bizarre status-quo in which the Conservative “modernisation” project has delivered 25 years of electoral failure, but it’s adherents continue to inexplicably and unaccountably hold sway within the party, and call for more of the same. Reminiscent of the febrile theoretical socialist glaring at history’s condemnation screaming “but that wasn’t real socialism.”
The best result modernisation produced was a 12 seat majority for 20 months in nearly three decades. By contrast Margaret Thatcher held a majority of 144 at the height of her powers, and still remains, 40 years after her election as prime minister, the rallying example of leadership for Conservatives.
In lieu of any governing set of principles the Conservative Party has taken to hoovering up any rag-tag collection of policies considered en vogue, particularly if it feels they will attract the youth vote. The resultant perceived need to rid all vestiges of public life of the “pale, male, and stale” (the acceptable modern face of racism and sexism) has only seen a further bounce in support for the totem of pale maleness, Jacob Rees-Mogg, rather than the Conservative Party.
Most will remember the heyday of the Cameroon (never more than a poor facsimile of the Blairite, with half the shelf-life): “vote blue go green,” “changing to win,” “hug a hoodie.” The world has now moved on, or woken up from the short-termist reign of the spin doctor, and even Cameron himself has discarded these positions as the folly of times passed.
“A founder of the ERG said many now see their own party as the enemy. I would concur”
There remains however an unelected ancien regime at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), where the “A-list” candidate selection policy still reigns, where Brexit never happened, and where it is still believed that by further embracing the progressive agenda, somehow 25 years of failure will be overturned. It has now become normal for the Conservative Party to pursue policies completely alien to its members, voters and founding principles.
With a weak government the Campaign HQ is dominating the messaging, and the results are clear: an incomprehensible cavalcade of policy positions garnished with the empty promise of “Brexit means Brexit.”
The Conservative Party Press Office has been churning out press release after press release about taxing or banning plastics, straws, and saving turtles, having renounced the manifesto commitment to hold a free vote on fox hunting.
There’s surely nothing wrong with reducing unnecessary animal cruelty, but as one long-serving backbench MP put it to me: “There has been no shortage of government intervention on microbeads, straws, and the plight of turtles, but a distinct lack of anyone from the government willing to engage with the public about a vision for the country—as a result we have at times looked rudderless.”
I am told the sudden swerve onto Greenpeace’s turf came from CCHQ’s young head of press Carrie Symonds. Symonds is an honorary member of the “Conservative Animal Welfare Association” which has been the subject of several complaints from the largest independent membership organisation to support the Conservative Party in recent years, the Countryside Alliance.
Unfortunately for the likes of Symonds, as Cameron discovered with his rooftop wind turbines and hoodie hugs, this sort of thing may win the acceptance of some Conservatives into the liberal elite, but not their support, nor the measurable support of any voters. The great cost has been the dissent of Britain’s conservative base and groups like the Countryside Alliance that once formed the fundament of the Conservative Party’s campaign machine.
An activist who runs a prominent Conservative campaigning group said after the May elections: “The problem for these well-heeled kids who work at CCHQ is they have probably bent over backwards for most of their lives to avoid any contact with ordinary people and certainly Conservative members. So it comes as no surprise they don’t have a clue what to talk about message-wise, so end up going for crap that’s in vogue in the circles they move in, and we end up with a load of garbage about animals that you can’t sell on the doorstep.”
What the well-heeled kids now unaccountably controlling the Conservative Party’s messaging will also be blind to, is that the much-lauded youth vote is not one the Conservative Party has ever done well with, and despite the incessant harping of columnists that the youth must be courted at all costs, the largest and fastest growing demographic in Britain is actually the over 50s, who voted for Brexit in droves, were disgusted by the “Dementia tax” proposals, but who would very likely vote in great numbers for a genuinely Conservative Party if there was one.
If failure and logic cannot, what must bring a final end to the modernisation project is that it’s adherents were convinced that all conservatives would be dead in 10 years, thus requiring the Conservative Party to discard its founding principle of conservatism.
“It has become normal for the party to pursue policies completely alien to its members, voters and founding principles”
As Britain’s oldest conservative think tank, the Bow Group took the view that conservatism is an eternally relevant ideology inherent to mankind, and held firm to those principles. Cameron, so unnerved that a group of young conservatives such as we could exist, pulled out any stops he could to remove us and any similar dissenters, resulting in the “Tatler Tory” scandal. The ruthless “with us or against us atmosphere” that peaked in 2015 may have put some off speaking truth to power, but it galvanised many more.
It was never supposed to be that the creators of “Moggmentum” (the viral supporters group of the man the Cameroons described as the “Minister for the 18th Century”) are even younger than those in the Bow Group, and the young people today rising from university coming into conservative politics have a strong tendency to be pro-Brexit, pro traditionalism and anti-Party.
The conservative movement is now not only bigger and more active than the Conservative Party, it is most often in outright opposition to it. The Conservative Party has set itself up on the anti-conservative side in the global culture war, and that position cannot be sustainable. The disingenuity is quite apparent to the public, as prominent Conservatives are forced to smile through gritted teeth at events like Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, that the conservative movement achieved not only without them, but against them. In both cases these were organic counter movements that came from a groundswell of grassroots feeling that can never be countered by the top down pronouncements of establishment power.
A founder of the European Research Group (ERG) of MPs said that many in the group now see the central Conservative Party (their own Party) not as poor allies, but as the enemy. I would concur.
The Labour Party has renewed and reinvogarated itself by going against all of the established wisdom, and allowing ordinary people, rather than elite politicians, to decide its future. The Conservatives were so far behind Labour that when Jeremy Corbyn took over they thought they were ahead. Few realised that the Labour Party was going through the painful but necessary transition away from third-way politics that the Conservatives will eventually have to go through themselves if they wish to survive.
When I cried foul on the recent decision to overlook popular Brexiteer MP Andrew Rosindell’s candidacy for Mayor of London, the Conservative Party Chairman responded to me on Twitter that the “London Conservatives Group made the decision.” To my further question “why not let ordinary members of the Conservative Party in London decide?” there was no response.
That is the only sustainable future for the Conservative Party, instead of fruitlessly courting an increasingly belligerent opposition, it must as Ronald Reagan once said “dance with the one who brought you.” Either the membership of the Conservative Party brings the organisation back to first principles and it becomes again a genuine movement of ordinary people, or it will be a sad and necessary casualty of the tumultuous end of the liberal era that we now are living through.
The original article was published on 27/07/18 - https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/for-proper-conservatives-the...