Beginning to See the Light: ‘I love muddy puddles!’ (1)
‘Are we living in a land
Where sex and horror are the new Gods?’
As another week rumbles to a close little seems to have changed in Westminster, or has it? The rumours of discontent in the Tory party get louder every day, with some suggesting that Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 committee is receiving more mail than Santa.
For so long the Tory’s strength has been their unity, or perhaps their ability to paper over the cracks. However, whilst Brexit was one of the key drivers of their sweeping 2019 electoral victory, it is now looking as if it could fragment the party in a most unexpected way. Whilst I will claim credit for stating that this could occur, the way in which it has happened has been a surprise; in ‘Brexit: ‘The Never Ending Story’ published in March 2016, I wrote:
‘If we take the Conservatives there are a number of high-profile people on either side of the divide, e.g., David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Can the loser put the defeat to one-side and move on? Or will we see the party splinter into two factions leading to the creation of a new party, or defections to UKIP or the Liberal Democrats?’
The protest we are seeing in Commons votes are being described as a revolution on the quiet, it isn’t that Tory MPs are vote against the government, they aren’t voting at all.
The vote on the controversial changes to the way people will have to pay for social care costs passed by just 26, a third of the government’s working majority of 77. While 19 Tories rebelled, 67 recorded no vote. According to Tory whips C.30 did so without permission.
As one MP said, ‘Last night, if the cabinet hadn’t come back [to vote] they could have been in quite a difficult place.’
When the Commons approved the government’s plan to block punishment for Owen Paterson after he broke lobbying rules; 13 Tory MPs rebelled but 97 didn’t vote. A Labour opposition day motion on second jobs for MPs last week saw four Conservatives support it and 71 not vote.
As one senior Tory backbencher said, ‘The concern is we do all these things and then U-turn, so you might as well not bother voting. And I think we’ll see a lot more. As far as I’m aware, most of those who don’t vote aren’t being dragged in front of the chief whip.’
‘Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 committee is receiving more mail than Santa’
Last week’s PMQs saw Tory MPs vote with their feet as there were numerous empty seats behind the front bench. The vacant green leather behind Johnson bore silent witness to how much he has aggravated his parliamentary party. Attendees at a later, private meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers described the atmosphere as sullen, and the prime minister’s belated confession that he had ‘crashed the car into a ditch’, didn’t help matters.
To date the ‘red-wall’ MPs have been Johnsons’ silent majority, primarily because he won them their seats. Now they are angry at being plunged into a sleaze crisis made in Number 10, angry that the PM ducked below the parapet while they were exposed to the outrage of voters and further aggrieved that their party suffered so much reputational damage before its leader finally acknowledged that he had blundered.
The disappointment that is HS2 has worsened their mood, as many of the constituencies they represent have lost out. Added to their list of grievances is the government fiddling with the cap on social care costs meaning that less affluent pensioners, many of whom live in red wall constituencies, could end up paying tens of thousands of pounds more.
‘Boris has still got a bit of capital in the bank, but a lot of it has gone,’ says a Conservative MP representing a Yorkshire seat.
From the red wallers we move to the ‘red corduroys’, a reference to the weekend trouser wear sometimes favoured by older Conservative MPs representing wealthier, more traditionally Tory areas, who are also disgruntled. Many in this group benefit from ‘second jobs’ that are threatened by a tightening of the rules on MPs’ outside interests. Many are ex-ministers and viewed as unbiddable by government business managers. ‘The whips know not to bother me,’ says one.
‘The whips know not to bother me’
Whilst Frankie had only two tribes, Johnson has several. Next up we have the ‘Spartans’, the Brexit fundamentalists who played such a key role in dethroning Theresa May, and paving the path to leader for Johnson, who, whilst he gave them the hard-Brexit they craved is not delivering the domestic programme that they imagined would follow. For the Spartans point of Brexit was allowing Britain to become a low-tax, light-regulation, small-state country. Instead, they find themselves part of a government raising taxes to their highest share of the economy since the early 1950s.
The Spartans overlap with the Thatcherites who have long been suspicious that the Tory leader is not a genuine disciple of the Iron Lady; ‘Boris doesn’t have a conviction in his body,’ complains one veteran Thatcherite. ‘There’s a lot of us worrying: is this a Conservative government?’ They tend not to blame the recent tax-hiking budget on Rishi Sunak, who they view as one of their own, instead they lay the blame at the feet of the spendthrift, haphazard, headline-chasing PM.
In turn to the more moderate Tory MPs, the type who tried to stop the government’s savage cuts to the aid budget, worry that moderate voters are repelled by sleaze, mendacity, incompetence and the crude bombast of the prime minister. ‘Many of us assumed that Boris was the One Nation Tory who ran London,’ says a centrist Conservative MP who backed him for the leadership in 2019. ‘Unfortunately, we’ve learnt that this was just a persona to win London. We’ve learnt that this was not the genuine Boris.’
‘Boris doesn’t have a conviction in his body’
Added to this group are Tory MPs who never trusted him, realising that he would be a bad PM, and sought to stop him becoming leader.
Lastly, there are the ‘Johnsonites’; only there aren’t any. They exist in myth only. Johnson is a man of no fixed abode, no ideology, he is an opportunist. All he has are lackeys and hangers-on, who will drop him as soon as his number is up.
In summary, Johnson was only elected leader because Tory MPs thought he was their best option for winning the last election, his chances of remaining leader depend on them continuing to view him as such.
His personal ratings have fallen more than that of the party as voters who once shrugged at his character failings are now growing tired of the act. As one Tory MP said, ‘I notice they don’t call him Boris anymore,’ says one. ‘They call him Johnson.’
However, despite all the splinter groups, one of the inevitable consequences of Brexit for the party is can they continue to paper over their differences.?
Brexit created a new breed of Tory voter. Prior to Brexit Tory’s tended to be seen as representative of the shires and suburbs. Speaking for and to those who were either rich or comfortably off, and those that aspired to be. When the party had extended its appeal in the past it was based on offering people individual advancement, such as Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme which created new homeowners. Then no one minded people at the top of the party making money by fair or foul means, and the old Tory vision of the property-owning democracy was joined by the brief dream of millions of people buying and selling shares.
‘a man of no fixed abode, no ideology, he is an opportunist’
The real change came in the last 10-years, where in response to Labour’s weakening connection with some of its old core vote, some adventurous Conservative realised that they could become the new ‘workers’ party’, re-embracing the idea of an activist state.
Brexit broke the old established political model leading to the so-called red wall seats in the post-industrial north and Midlands turned Tory.
What started with Theresa May and her more collectivist direction, became a huge electoral swing based on Johnson’s promises of ‘levelling up’ and his apparent belief in the power of government. Whether or not he really meant this only he knows. What he misunderstood, perhaps due to his own wealth and his ties to other moneyed people, is that the politics of the red wall requires not just a change in rhetoric and policy but in Tory behaviour. The results of this are now becoming apparent, if traditional Tory voters are appalled by the sleaze and lack of ethics, then just try to imagine how the new Tory voters feel.
This is reflected in the way their MPs are beginning to vote in parliament. Among the 13 Tory MPs who voted against changing the rules governing the parliamentary standards system, were the new Conservative MPs for Hartlepool, Scunthorpe and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Mark Fletcher, the MP for Bolsover (elected in 2019 in a seat represented for 49 years by Labour’s Dennis Skinner), abstained on the vote, but later made a righteous speech in the Commons taking aim at ‘some senior colleagues on the backbenches’ who thought he had not yet understood ‘how this place really works’. His punchline came with a compelling irreverence: ‘I think that two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong.’
What is becoming apparent is the differences between the long-serving, often complacent MPs whose seats tend to be in traditional Tory areas and younger colleagues who have a self-awareness suited to the social media age, and who often represent the ‘new’ Tory constituencies. One unnamed Tory recently told the Daily Mail, the former kind of MP thinks that their annual pay of £82,000 ‘is the basic salary, which they can build up outside Westminster’, while the latter ‘considers £82,000 all the money in the world’. Moreover, seasoned Tories are often old-school Thatcherites who are sceptical about ‘levelling up’, whereas many of the party’s new MPs were elected on the promise of government coming to the aid of their areas.
Among these traditional Tory’s are Brexit hardliners such as John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith. They may have championed the Brexit cause for years, but now they are finding themselves marginalised by younger Conservatives who’s visions of post-Brexit Tory politics are very different to the old guard. Johnson, unsurprisingly, is in the middle, championing levelling-up, whilst being part of the old guard. This became clear when he sided with them in trying to diffuse the Paterson fiasco with changes to rules on second jobs.
‘championing levelling-up, whilst being part of the old guard’
Levelling-up is now being seen for what is always was, mere words, as evidenced by the broken promises on HS2, and social care plans which will disproportionately hit less well-off pensioners.
Johnson doesn’t possess the magical levelling up policy of ‘right-to-buy’. His majority was delivered by the ‘new’ Tory’s., who in return, expect him to honour his promises. However, in delivering this he will lose support amongst the traditionalists. Serving two masters is always doomed to failure.
The Tory’s have decisions to make. Is it small state or big state? Is it high or low taxation? Is it the health and social services we want, or those we are prepared to fund? Will London and SE continue to flourish alone or will the rest catch-up?
The elephant in the room continues to be Nigel Farage who is threatening yet another comeback; at this rate he will equal Frank Sinatra. Joking aside, he still haunts the Tory’s. Should the red wall voters find themselves betrayed by Johnson don’t be surprised to see them flock to Farage should he choose to offer himself as an alternative.
‘Should the red wall voters find themselves betrayed by Johnson don’t be surprised to see them flock to Farage’
To conclude, where does this leave us. As always, in my opinion we end in the same place. There are two-tribes, the haves and the have nots.
Tory ideals suit the haves and the few have nots who become haves. Johnson is a charlatan in so many ways, but perhaps his worst charade is being a have who wants to help the have nots. He is a man of such shallowness that little, if anything, he utters can be taken seriously. At heart he wants to be liked, a lovable clown. His desire to be liked leads him to make extravagant promises that he can’t keep.
Does he believe them? Yes, but only for the fleeting moment he utters them. Johnson is just another example of the Tory’s desperation for power at all and any cost.
Send in the clown, but it’s all of us left in tears.
‘Now if I appear to be carefree
It’s only to camouflage my sadness
And honey to shield my pride I try
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness’
- One of Peppa Pig’s favourite sayings
A typically powerful piece from Philip this week, and yet more evidence of just how advanced some of his thinking was when he first wrestled with the issue of Brexit more than five years ago.
A recurring theme, but ones that is becoming inescapable – ‘as always, in my opinion we end in the same place. There are two-tribes, the haves and the have nots’.
Setting the scene, Philip said – ‘this week we continue to look at Johnson’s faltering premiership, as MPs appear to be deserting a sinking ship.
The loyalists such as Raab continue to blindly support him, and it reminds me of Hitler’s last days in the bunker, when loyalists still thought him capable of one last miracle.
We revisit the very first Brexit article, and my supposition that it would split the Tory’s. It would seem I predicted the result but not the score.
Whilst there are numerous tribes, what seems incompatible is levelling up which requires actions contrary to the Tory beliefs. If one quote can summarise the situation it is this; £82,000 ‘is the basic salary, which they can build up outside Westminster’, while the latter ‘considers £82,000 all the money in the world’.
The situation is exacerbated by Farage waiting to pounce. I don’t believe we have seen the last of him.’
If the theme is haves and have nots, how can a ‘traditional’ Tory party overcome it? It seems some sort of split is inevitable, and just how disappointed will red wall voters have to become before they jump ship. Given this week’s tragic events, that may feel like a clumsy and insensitive analogy, but is M. Farage going to be the one to offer safe passage?
‘Musically, with all these tribes it had to be Frankie, even though they only had two. We finish with ‘Tears of a Clown’. Need I say more? You needn’t Philip, and there’s a wee bonus track; enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s