The pursuit of Lansley is a masterclass in cliquishness
Anyone who thinks the Tory infighting over Andrew Lansley’s NHS bill is a clash of principles should think again. It is class-A bitchiness.
‘[S]ystematic anonymous briefing from people you have known for years, and who are supposed to be on your side, is deeply unpleasant. Living next door to it – literally – made it all the harder. I was reminded of the words Henry II uttered about Thomas Becket: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”’
So wrote Alistair Darling recently of his time as chancellor in the New Labour government. It was a telling, if hardly surprising, insight. During New Labour’s 13-year tenure, factional backbiting and ‘Brown said, Blair said’ office gossip had been transformed into the substance of party-political culture. Yet, for those who thought this nasty, gossipy culture was a problem specific to the unhinged egos of New Labour, think again. As the sniping and front-stabbing that has befallen the current Conservative health secretary Andrew Lanlsley indicates, factional squabbles continue to assume an unprecedented political importance regardless of the party involved.
In the case of Lansley, the bitchfest has been particularly unedifying. It has ostensibly been prompted by Lansley’s handling of the NHS reform bill which, having been on pause since last April, is now making its way slowly and awkwardly through parliament.
Now, any non-resident of the Westminster village could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds like an old-style political issue is being debated here. After all, we’re talking about the NHS, the sacred cow of the old welfare state, a symbol every bit as important to Labour-supporting types as the Good War is to the political class as a whole. But the reality of the anti-Lansley bile is somewhat different. It’s not the necessity of reforming the NHS that is being questioned by Tories or their coalition colleagues the Lib Dems – at least, not in any substantial way. In fact, to the extent that they can make sense of the bill, many of his wilfully indiscreet colleagues seem to agree with what Lansley seems to be trying to do. What they object to, rather, is how he is doing it, pointing out that the anti-bureaucratic, cost-cutting centrepiece of the legislation – removing a layer of management and giving groups of family doctors a free hand to buy care – could have been achieved without having to make any new legislation. As one insider is reported to have said: ‘Health reform should have been carried out by stealth.’
So it’s not health reform that’s being squabbled over here, it’s Lansley himself, a man deemed ‘arrogant and aloof’ by his colleagues. This is the era not of politics proper, of competing visions of the future, but of office politics, of competing for the best room. The preferred mode of political conflict reflects this change. Today, it is not about public debate; it is all about the ‘briefing’, the gossip, the whispering.
Just skim through any of the recent plethora of columns and comment pieces on Lansley and the NHS reform bill. The building blocks for these pieces, their reference points, are not political ideas, but snippets of gossip, spliced with rumour. A Times column last week was a positive masterclass in what Darling described as ‘systematic briefing’: ‘“We’re back to square one,” says one exasperated insider. “Andrew Lansley is just a disaster.”‘ Or: ‘“Andrew Lansley should be taken out and shot”, says a Downing Street source. “He’s messed up both the communication and the substance of the policy.”’ Elsewhere, in the Financial Times, insiders’ gobs continued to flap bile Lansley’s way: ‘one senior adviser said yesterday: “I don’t know who is going to turn around and say he has done a good job.”’ Then: ‘Several Tory MPs have echoed that criticism [of Lansley]. One said: “No Tory MP knows what the point of these reforms is any more. I would be surprised if [Mr] Lansley was still here in a year.”‘
The anti-Lansley brigade even made an appearance on popular Tory blog ConservativeHome. ‘Three Tory cabinet ministers have now also rung the alarm bell’, wrote its editor, Tim Montgomerie. ‘One was insistent the bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax. The consensus is that the prime minister needs an external shock to wake him to the scale of the problem.’
What this amounts to is little more than factionalism run amok, a coordinated bitching session motivated not by political principle but by electoral prospects and careerism. It is a case of one set of politicians from the same party making public their grievances against another faction, and using reporters, columnists and bloggers they trust to do so. One doubts that it’s much of a coincidence that Montgomerie, for instance, was former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s chief of staff in 2003, before joining up with him to establish the Centre for Social Justice in 2004. Likewise Lansley himself, the target of so much Tory ire, is part of current leader David Cameron’s gang, having been Cameron’s boss at the Conservative Research Centre in the early 1990s. There are scores being settled here, both old and new.
Of course, politicians from the same party have fallen out before. And some no doubt have hated the sight of one another. But it is only recently that the cliques within a party have been allowed to assume such public and political importance. And this tells us something of the nature of the contemporary political party. Bereft of both a social constituency outside the Westminster bubble, and, consequently, a social vision to which a politician could be committed, today’s parties carry the old names, but none of their social substance. They are deracinated. So what powers the modern British political party is not the energy and mediated interests of a social mass; it’s the hamster wheel of individual ambition, the self-propulsion of the egotist. Loyalty to the party as a whole matters little when that party, now little more than a husk, means even less. And this is why these cliques of modern-day courtiers have come to the fore of contemporary party-political life. With the parties emptied of social and political content, what sustains them is little more than political careerism. As the Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley writes: ‘A growing number of Tories are gripped by a simple… consideration: anxiety that messing up the NHS could be fatal to their electoral prospects.’
But surprisingly there is one thing more degraded than the spectacle of Tories eating themselves. And that is the parasitism of those who have seized upon the Tories’ implosion as some sort of potential political victory: ‘Labour need to keep loudly attacking the Conservatives on the NHS bill’, writes one self-styled lefty. ‘They need to make as much noise as possible so that voters associate this massive NHS upheaval with the Tories.’ In other words, make hay while the Tories whine. Elsewhere, Labour’s powder-puff leader Ed Miliband also saw a chance to score points against the government: ‘Nurses, doctors and patients have been telling David Cameron for months that he’s on the wrong track on the NHS and now even members of his cabinet are as well.’ But just as those knocking Lansley within the Tory party are not really arguing about the NHS, so Ed Miliband and Labourite fellow travellers are not really making a case for the NHS. Little attempt is being made to engage the public, let alone win our support. Instead, much as NHS-loving campaigners have been more than happy to lobby our unelected betters in the House of Lords, the hope here is that Tory infighting will be enough to grind the bill to a halt.
It’s a depressing, not to mention politically decadent situation. If public debate is the lifeblood of a vital democracy, bitching and gossip is the sign of a dessicated democracy. Turned in on itself, the Westminster village, insular and incestuous, virtually bypasses the public. There certainly needs to be a public discussion about what type of health service we as a society want, but this is not it.
Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.
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