Tory Party takes Flight
Howard’s naming-and-shaming approach to party reform is less likely to bring about a New Tory Party, than to hasten the fragmentation of the old.
The starting whistle hasn’t even been blown, and already the Tories are kicking each other in the shins. Tory leader Michael Howard’s deselection of MP Howard Flight provides a snapshot of the state of disarray within the Tory Party. Labour must now be rubbing its hands, safe in the knowledge that a few sparks are all it takes for the Tory tinderbox to combust.
Flight was removed as a candidate for the safe seat Arundel and South Downs after he suggested at a meeting of the Thatcherite group, Conservative Way Forward, that once in power, the Tories would cut public spending by more than their election pronouncements. Howard’s snap decision was unusually severe. The roll call of disgraced Tory ministers of the past (David Mellor and Neil Hamilton, for example) may have lost their place in government, but they kept their seats. When Scottish MP Allan Stewart wielded a pickaxe at an anti-motorway protester he was forced to quit the Scotland Office, but retained his Eastwood constituency.
Flight’s sacking wasn’t really about party discipline or policy. Instead it was a gesture – an attempt to instil a new political culture, and show that the Tories have changed. But Howard’s naming-and-shaming approach to party reform is less likely to bring about a New Tory Party, than to hasten the fragmentation of the old.
Howard was making a desperate attempt to show that the Tories are a trustworthy alternative to Tony ‘Bliar’. He justified his move with the statement: ‘we are not saying one thing in private and something else in public. If you believe in honesty you have to act on it and that is why I took the very difficult decision I took.’ (1) Honesty has apparently become the number one measuring stick in politics. Forget what politicians say – it’s the fact that they really mean it that matters. By giving Flight the chop, Howard sought to send the message that the Tory Party is a genuine outfit without secret or hidden intentions.
Similar battles have been going on in Conservative Associations across the land. Slough Conservative Association is now being run from London, after two candidates failed to fit the bill. First there was Robert Oulds, who was removed after being photographed with an array of his friend’s weaponry; then Adrian Hilton was forced out after suggesting that the European Union was part of a ‘papist plot’. When Slough refused to let go of Hilton, it was placed on ‘support status’ and had another candidate imposed. Meanwhile, Conservative Party bosses have provided a selection list for Calder Valley in Yorkshire, after local Tories ousted a woman candidate who claimed sex discrimination. And the Tory candidate for Blair’s Sedgefield constituency, Danny Kruger, was forced to withdraw after he called for a period of ‘creative destruction’ of the public service bureaucracy.
The Tory leadership seems to be turning on anyone who looks and sounds, well, Tory. The party’s base is now an embarrassment, a quaint and ageing constituency that is out-of-step with the times. It says the wrong things, it doesn’t know how to talk the talk or walk the walk. Arundel’s paved streets, packed with antiques merchants and tea shops, looks like another world. By removing anybody who doesn’t look right, Howard is trying to drum a new mindset into the party.
In appearance, this could be compared with Labour’s expulsion of Militant in the 1980s. But Labour’s reform had a more solid political basis, in that Militant represented a distinct, leftist strain within the party. By contrast, Howard’s reform seems to be a form of political correctness, cracking down on individuals who let their tongue slip in unguarded moments. Tory ministers are shown the door for comments they made in private, not for a programme they signed up to in public.
The Tory leader’s attempts at reform seem to hasten the party’s collapse. Tories past and present have been lining up in the face-off between Flight and Howard. Lord Heseltine backed Howard, but Lord Tebbit fell in with Flight and questioned Howard’s judgement. A shadow cabinet member called the move ‘unnecessary and vindictive’, while the Arundel party president said it was ‘brutal’, a ‘huge blow for the constituency. It is just disaster after disaster after disaster’ (2). The two sides are as desperate as each other. While Howard’s gesture was petty, the Flight defence committee petulantly blames their ‘Stalinist’ leader for every ache and pain suffered by the party. One shadow minister was quoted as saying: ‘If we go down badly at the election, the associations will remember just who had declared war on them.’ (3)
The Tory Party was once a supreme institution of power, mediating relations between constituency roots and the parliamentary head. Now it doesn’t seem to know what its own rules are. Was Flight’s deselection even legal? Flight has conferred with his lawyers and says not, but Howard will not be moved. It seems that the party that was once run by informal consensus will now have its procedures scrutinised and judged by lawyers.
All this bodes ill as a warm-up to the general election. Now Labour knows that Howard will turn on anybody who says the wrong thing, it is no doubt aiming to get half the Tory front bench deselected. Labour’s policies of sending moles into private Conservative meetings, and searching records for evidence of MPs’ discrepancies, have been affirmed. Politics becomes about sneaking around trying to catch people out, rather than taking them on in a head-to-head argument. And the focus is more on whether politicians really, really mean what they say, rather than the substance of their argument. The result is likely to be increased public cynicism about politics, as voters switch off and tune out in droves.
In itself, the fragmentation of the Tory Party is of little concern. The trouble is that the party’s unseemly collapse helps to poison the political atmosphere for everyone.