The Tory Party: a conference of cliques
The Conservative conference is less about politics than petty, self-promoting infighting and factionalism.
You’ve got to hand it to the Tories. Although it will take some doing, they look like they might just pull it off. That’s right, their party conference might just surpass that of either the Lib Dems or Labour in terms of the sheer forgettableness of its content.
Admittedly, this is a big claim. The Labour Party conference was a masterclass in bland gimmickry, with a ‘one nation’ sentiment lobbed out there, a vague allusion to economic policy chucked out here, and little else but Ed Miliband’s Wallace-and-Grommit-do-class-war shtick in between. The only thing less resonant than the performance of Labour’s charmless nerds was the Lib Dem conference, which amounted to a collective plea of ‘don’t blame us’. But the Tories really do look as if they have trumped their rivals.
Despite being the senior partners in the coalition government – despite, that is, being in power – the Conservative Party conference has been singularly bereft of political substance. Yes, chancellor George Osborne has reaffirmed the government’s commitment to ‘deficit reduction’, but this is something he’s been doing since he became chancellor in May 2010. And yes, there has been talk about encouraging ‘strivers’ and being nice to the ‘squeezed middle’. But beyond fiscal tight-fistedness and soundbitten vacuity, there has been very little to keep even the denizens of the Westminster village gossiping.
Or so it would seem. But criticising the ambition-lite politics of our Lilliputian politicians is to miss the point about these party conferences. They are not really about big political issues and disputes any more (nor have they been for some time), and they do not really speak to anyone outside the conference hall. Rather, due to the hollowed-out, deracinated nature of the modern political party, today’s conferences amount to little more than platforms for various sects to promote themselves to the party’s ever-dwindling membership. And nowhere has this cliquishness and factionalism been more apparent than at the Tory conference.
This is why the main stories of the Tory Party conference are not political; they are personal. The headlines have been generated not by Osborne’s employee-rights-for-shares plan, but by London mayor Boris Johnson versus prime minister David Cameron, or the Iain Duncan Smith-backed ConservativeHome website versus the Cameroons.
Indeed, talk of the threat Johnson poses to Cameron has dominated much of the conference so far. As the Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley eagerly points out, Cameron is less concerned by Red Ed than he is by Blonde Boris, a man nominally on the same side as Cameron. ‘The real enemy, the person whose name most makes the prime minister’s people twitch’, writes Rawnsley, ‘will be Boris Johnson’.
Borismania/phobia is understandable, to an extent. Johnson, bathed in a warm post-Olympics glow and possessed of a beguiling public persona, is genuinely popular. Cameron is not. Still, it is difficult not to marvel at the eagerness with which Johnson has embraced his role as the Tories’ great blue hope. Never known for his diffidence, he has unashamedly belly-flopped into his role as the Tory Party’s coming man. At a fringe event on Monday, ‘Boris Johnson’s 2012: Re-elected and Olympotastic’, he was at his performing best, digressing and punning with all the affected spontaneity that his cheerleaders love. The next day, ahead of his conference keynote, the Spectator reported that party members were queuing to try to get into the room: ‘It was the perfect hype for Boris’ campaign to become the anointed next leader of the Conservative Party.’
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And while Boris bumbles and pouts, other factions also jostle for position. The most notable of these is that which congregates around ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith, including the influential Tory blog, ConservativeHome, edited by Smith’s former chief-of-staff, Tim Montgomerie. On the eve of the conference, for instance, it was leaked to the Guardian that ConservativeHome was to drop all pretence of neutrality and become a more explicitly political grouping, with funding raised by Smith and education secretary Michael Gove. According to a Guardian source: ‘The new group believes that the modernisation programme launched in 2005 is badly flawed. The real Tory problem is not that it is seen as too old-fashioned or too right-wing but too libertarian and too indifferent to the needy and blue-collar Britain.’
What is telling about the source’s words is that ConservativeHome and its Cabinet backers are not concerned with what the Conservative Party is actually doing so much as with how it is seen – that is, as ‘too old-fashioned or too right-wing’. It is not a political point at issue; it is matter of presentation. And this is what is odd about the sectarianism which is currently so prominent among Tories. It is driven not by political principle, but by electoral pragmatism.
Contrast this with the factional struggles that nearly tore the Tories apart in the late Seventies and Eighties. Then, the so-called Wets, represented by figures such as Ian Gilmour, James Prior, Francis Pym, Douglas Hurd and a young Ken Clarke, were highly critical of the Thatcherite Dries’ ‘monetarist’ obsession with cutting taxes and inflation. Recently released minutes from a cabinet meeting in 1981, in which Prior attacked the Dries’ policies, lay bare the political nature of the arguments. ‘A strategy centred on reductions of taxation and public expenditure’, Prior argued, ‘would be irrelevant to the problems of Northern Ireland or those of Merseyside and other areas of urban dereliction and deprivation. Merseyside in particular was a community which was visibly falling apart, its hopelessness and despair compounded by the lack of commitment to the area of any wealth-creating institutions in the country.’ The Wets’ criticism, as Gilmour later put it, of Thatcher’s ‘repellent… economic liberalism’ throws the petty careerist machinations of today’s factions into sharp relief.
Of course, to the many light-headed observers trapped in the Westminster bubble, Johnson does appear to be outspoken, to have a political worldview all of his own. In the words of one commentator: ‘[Johnson] speaks his mind, clearly and amusingly, never reverting to Whitehallese and empty slogans. He talks the kind of hard-boiled sense that people can understand.’ Yet, upon closer inspection, whether it’s on gay marriage or the economy, there is little actually to separate Johnson politically from the Cameron faction. And even where there is, such as Johnson’s enthusiasm for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, he has proved himself in his time as London mayor remarkably adept at ditching prior views when in office. Indeed, once asked in an interview if he had any convictions, Johnson joked close to the bone: ‘Only one - for speeding, but a very long time ago.’ In fact, the most accurate appraisal of Johnson’s appeal comes from Hangover star Zach Galfianakis who, having seen BoJo outshine DavCam on the David Letterman Show, told the Sun :’[Johnson]‘s charming, very funny – and has that weird hair.’
That’s about right. In terms of political substance, about a hair’s breadth separates Cameron, Johnson and Smith. All the rest is party-conference sound and fury, signifying nothing more than careerism.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.