In 2010 I wrote, hoped and believed that the era of centrism would soon come to an end, after 13 years of a Blair-Brown government that had run Britain into the ground, economically, socially and culturally. At the time I thought the death of centrism would be a slow process delivered from within Westminster, it has culminated this week in an earthquake delivered from without.
Even as a teenager I had supported David Davis’ bid for Tory leadership, but the David Cameron that beat him in 2005 was a very different beast to the Europhile social democrat currently trying to sneak out of Downing Street before anyone notices he was the worst leader of the Conservative Party in its history.
By stark contrast, despite disappointment at Davis’ capitulation, the mood in the Conservative Party after the 2005 leadership election was buoyant: We had a young socially and economically conservative leader who could not only compete with Blair on image, but also take forward the conservative ideology and put it back into government.
Cameron promised the earth, a man who began his elected political career writing letters supporting Section 28 who would also advocate equality, who wanted to see the size of government reduced but also wanted to “let the sunshine in” and spend big on national projects.
It was clear only to the most careful and astute observers at the time that the Conservative Party had not won themselves an end to Blair, but an heir to Blair.
The dissatisfaction that has finally boiled over in the EU referendum is from that membership (many of whom now resigned), from those voters, from conservatives. They are the same people who rejected in the strongest terms the 13 years of Labour government that changed Britain beyond recognition; they voted for change, not the continuation of the progressive agenda by other means, and they are still angrily waiting for that change.
The 2005 Conservative moderniser’s revolution that today leaves the Conservative Party decimated did not come from the members of the Party or from the body or mind of British conservatism, but from a narrow group around Cameron who borrowed their vision liberally from Blair and Mandelson. Those ‘third-way’ adherent voices may even today still echo in CCHQ and Downing Street, and in the salons of Notting Hill, but they never found a home in the grassroots of the Tory Party.
The Conservative Party has therefore been governed for the past 11 years against what the leadership deemed the “swivel eyed”, “bigoted” and “bonkers” membership, rather than for them.
There were many architects of this “Conservative Modernisation Project”, and many that freely admit their association and desire to turn the Conservative Party away from conservatism towards a liberal and social democrat orthodoxy.
Perhaps the most important, but certainly the most wily and clever, was a man named Michael Gove.
Gove wrote an internal “blueprint” shortly after Cameron’s leadership victory designed to radically change the Conservative Party from the top down, by tricking local Conservative Associations into surrendering their power.
It began with the preamble:
‘Like a conjuror, we’ll get more applause if the audience cannot see exactly how the trick is performed.’
The document candidly and controversially stated that the reason local parties often chose white males was ‘because they tend to be the best people on offer’. Whilst it predicted some resistance from constituency associations, it declared: ‘Objections not only can be overcome, they MUST be overcome. The clever approach is to maintain the illusion that a good cross-section of approved candidates is being offered.’
It was a representation of the worst of metropolitan elite values, a closet inferior view of women and minorities, and a desire to use them to present an image of tolerance and detoxification to disguise the Eton-Oxford-Bullingdon elite that dominated the Party leadership. It became the philosophy of the modern Conservative Party, and it remains in ugly effect.
Gove's desire was to turn the Conservative Party into one of centrism and electoral calculation, rather than one of values, ideology and principle.
As this interview from the run-up to the 2010 election underlines:
“Gove seemed to be saying that the Conservative party was now the party that embodied New Labour’s Blairite values. So I asked him directly if that was what he thought. Yes, he replied.”
Also saying: “I can’t fight my feelings: I love Tony”
Gove shared a flat whilst studying at Oxford with Nick Boles and Ivan Massow, two figures who would be comfortable even in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Sharing a flat means little, I once did so with a Communist nudist, but Mr. Boles is now taking up the role as the manager of Gove’s leadership campaign. The same Nick Boles who was censured by David Cameron for being too belligerent an advocate of Same-Sex Marriage, and sits on the Board of the ultra-wet “progressive liberal” think tank “Bright Blue,” where Michael Gove is also listed as a supporter.
Theresa May barely attempts to hide her disdain for the Tory membership, famously berating them for being “the nasty party” but Gove has somehow successfully created the perception that he is a copperplate conservative. I received a call from a prominent Republican leader in Washington yesterday who considers Donald Trump “not conservative enough” who asked “As a conservative, I assume you’ll be supporting Michael Gove?”.
Despite his role as a smiling assassin towards the Tory Party faithful (and now Boris Johnson), I am glad Michael Gove is in politics. When not plotting his stealthy rise to the top he is the brightest man in any room and one capable of getting extraordinary results. If his application was to Mensa I’m sure it would immediately be approved, (if it hasn’t been already), it is however to lead the Conservative Party, as a conservative. A Party has had enough of heirs to Blair, centrism and not being listened to, and will revolt, split or collapse (as the Labour Party is currently) unless its needs are addressed.
Gove by his own admission is a Blairite liberal, it may be that he simply positioned himself thusly to curry favour with Cameron or win elections, and it may be that with a different team around him he could be a powerful conservative advocate, but after 11 years of being lied to the conservative movement in Britain needs certainty.
This week I wrote to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to argue that the membership of the Conservative Party must be given a greater say in the election of our next leader. This argument will be ignored, but the current system means that our “betters” in Parliament will whittle down the candidates from five to two, to prevent anyone too radical standing a chance in a genuinely free and fair election. Of the five there are only two conservative candidates running, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, and their chances are diminished by having to get through a Parliamentary vote before facing a free vote of the membership.
The Bow Group ran an internal poll with responses from almost 3000 of our members and affiliates, the prospective team of Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox trounced any opposition, winning 50% of the votes compared to 32% for Michael Gove.
There is little doubt in my mind that a Leadsom/Fox candidacy would win a popular vote of the membership, but it would be a depressing outcome if neither of the final two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party are conservatives, and whilst only Conservative MPs get a vote on that, they will listen to the views of the membership and wider movement when doing so.
If we don’t bang the table now, despite the great victory of June 23rd, we risk losing the Conservative Party and the country.
There are many conservatives who have left for UKIP or disengaged altogether, and I can’t blame them, but the Conservative Party was once the most powerful institution for the patriotic protection of British values and identity and not only can be again, but can also take us out of the EU towards prosperity. Great institutions can survive only one reckless heir in a generation, not two consecutively.
The people of this country want change, and the election of Theresa May, Michael Gove or Stephen Crabb would represent a fudged continuation of an order which has been in power since 1997, and one that Britain can’t move forward without conclusively ridding itself of.
The first ballot to select the next leader of the Conservative Party takes place in Parliament on Tuesday 5th July.
Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group.