Don’t bother cutting off the zombie Tory Party’s head
A challenge to David Cameron’s leadership won’t revive the Conservatives – the party has lost its reason for being and is at war with its old allies.
As Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his coalition government lurch from economic disaster to failed political stunt, there is heated talk in the media of a new ‘Tory leadership crisis’. It seems there have even been threats of ‘a coup’ against Conservative leader Cameron, amid reports of rival ‘armed camps’ within his Tory Party supporting different candidates to succeed him. These pretenders range from leading figures such as London mayor Boris Johnson and education secretary Michael Gove to unknown characters such as Windsor MP Adam Afriyie. The latter’s more deluded fans have dubbed him ‘the British Obama’, apparently on the strength of Afriyie being black.
It is clear that the Tories are in deep trouble. It is also clear that their problems will not be overcome by recent ‘jam tomorrow’ policy announcements that look like little more than PR exercises. Cameron’s pledges to hold a Euro-referendum sometime in the future, and to build a national high-speed rail network on an even-longer timescale, are intended to give an air of futuristic purpose to a moribund government with little or nothing to say about the problems of the present. Good luck with that.
However, there is even less chance of the Conservatives overcoming their difficulties through a ‘coup’ or even a dignified change of leadership. As with the perpetual leadership crisis that dogged previous New Labour governments, the notion that changing the front-man’s face on the label will make the product more attractive and effective seriously underestimates the problem.
There is indeed a ‘Tory leadership crisis’ today. But it goes much deeper than the personal crisis of Cameron’s leadership. It stems from a more fundamental political crisis of Toryism itself. The Conservatives are neither ‘Tory’ nor a ‘Party’ in any sense that their forebears would have recognised. Like the other major players in UK politics, the Conservative Party is now an empty shell topped by a leadership clique that believes in little beyond its own re-election and is interchangeable with its opposition counterparts.
In fact the Tories are effectively political zombies – still walking the Earth in a putrid version of their old form, but dead from the neck up.
To see how far the Conservative Party has fallen, it is worth quickly surveying its loss of influence over the institutions that provided its traditional sources of authority. Through much of the twentieth century the Tories were the undoubted party of the British ruling class, with close connections to every pillar of the Establishment. That Establishment’s loss of direction and control has led to the implosion of the Tories’ old authority.
One result is that the Conservatives now appear to be seriously at odds with most of their traditional allies. This institutional breakdown is far more serious than any petty falling-out between ‘Dave’ and Boris, or between Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
The Church of England, for example, the established church of the British state, was long described as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’. Over recent decades, however, church leaders have fallen out with the Tories over issues of poverty and social policy and relations between church and state, culminating in the current rows over legalising gay marriage and appointing women bishops. Many older Tories must these days look upon the CofE as more like the LGBT Party at prayer, ‘if they even pray any more…’.
The armed bodies of the British state, meanwhile, were once viewed as the Tory Party at war. Conservative politicians had close connections with the armed forces and the police force, which often acted as the armed wing of Conservatism at home and abroad, as in the Thatcher government’s war on the miners in the 1980s (the state was also, of course, generally happy to get stuck in on the orders of Labour governments). Now the Tories are more often at loggerheads with police and military leaders over spending cuts and policy. If it made nothing else clear, the row over the ‘Plebgate’ episode revealed the unprecedented depth of animosity between the police and Tory ministers today.
Or take the Ulster Unionists. Once, the Tories’ dedication to the cause of maintaining the Union between Britain and (at least) Northern Ireland was a defining cause of British Conservatism. Indeed, the Irish question was the issue around which the modern Tory Party was formed at the start of the twentieth century, splitting the pro-Unionist imperialists away from the old Liberal Party. A century ago, the Tories declared their blood-brotherhood with the defenders of British Ulster by renaming themselves the Conservative and Unionist Party. Today, as analysed on spiked recently, Cameron’s Conservative leadership looks down on the remaining Unionists who want to fly the Union Flag as a contemptible rabble, to be condemned in the sort of language they would not dare to use in relation to the black ‘natives’ of the old Empire.
The Tories have also, of course, effectively declared war on their erstwhile allies in the media, attacking the tabloid press through the Leveson Inquiry and renewing hostilities with the BBC over everything from the licence fee to Jimmy Savile. And it is a similar story with the other institutions on which the Conservatives’ authority as the voice of the Establishment once rested. From the House of Lords to the senior civil service, the Tories can no longer rely on what were for so long the pillars of their power.
The crisis of Tory leadership reflects and reinforces nothing less than the disarray and advanced disintegration of all the traditional institutions of authority in our society. The Conservative zombies are left as a party in name alone, without purpose or principles on which to base a recovery.
None of this should imply that the coalition government is about to collapse. The Tories and the Lib Dems appear determined to cling together for comfort and keep away from the hostile electorate for as long as possible. Nor does it necessarily mean that the Conservatives could not win another election sometime. The other main parties are, after all, in an equally zombified state, lacking any signs of proper political life. Labour’s loss of its allies in the once-powerful trade union movement mirrors the Tories’ problems.
The political death of Toryism does mean, however, that it is pointless to imagine that a solution could be found in swapping leaders. And it is even more pointless for the rump of the living-dead, left to keep up the charade of imagining that they are still dealing with the resolute party of Thatcher, or that bringing down a Tory leader now would be of any real significance.
The zombie Tory Party, along with its opposition counterparts, is indeed a dead weight around the neck of the body politic today. Unfortunately, unlike those Hollywood zombies, it is unlikely be put out of its misery simply by removing its head.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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