Sunday 8 October 2017

The Conservative Party's Stable Instability

The more things change the more they stay the same. As per the last few weekends the Sunday press is full of speculation about the Prime Minister's future. Briefing lies cheek by jowl with counter-briefing, reports of back bench disgruntlement is met by professions of contrived (some might say fulsome) loyalty. In this week after the worst speech ever, the factional temperature shot up to feverish levels. Grant Shapps claimed to have the names of 30 Tory MPs who wanted Theresa May to step aside, and then there was that WhatsApp group whose contents were conveniently leaked. Among the "loyalists" revealed was one Boris Johnson, though it's difficult to see anyone taking his fealty in good faith.

In latest developments, we've had John Major plunging in on his white charger. According to the Mail on Sunday, the Tories need to keep it together lest "poisonous Marxists" take control. May's critics are "entirely self-absorbed" he said, singling no one out in particular (but we all know who he means). Speaking of which, Johnson said anyone up for a leadership contest now are "nutters". You've got to give it to the foreign secretary, he certainly has a facility for language. But, oh dear, here comes Andrea Leadsom again.

As a founder of Labour for Leadsom, I cannot hide my delight to learn she's on manoeuvres. According to The Mirror, The Dread is proving a stealthy chancer and her moves have yet to be picked up by the Whip's Office. Apparently, turning up at Grenfell Tower in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and making clear on more than one occasion that she wants it, one might suggest their radar could do with an overhaul. But the truth of the matter is the chaos in the party is such that rank outsiders, as well as the downright rank, all fancy their chances. Yet, despite everything, nothing at all has changed.

Here's the rub. Everyone knows the snap general election was a massive blunder, and at any other time such a poor result would have meant Theresa May was for the chopping block. Yet these are not ordinary times. We have a polarising electorate that isn't likely to shift much this side of Brexit. Many millions of voters are clinging to the Tories, regardless of shenanigans. Partly because Brexit is a repository of their fantasies, perceived interests and insecurities, and because the rising Labour Party and all it represents stands in for their terror of the new, only something that can obviously be spun as a betrayal of Brexit is going to shift them. The problem is the tighter the Tory grip on this bedrock of support, the greater the toxicity accumulating about their party vis a vis other constituencies. Furthermore, the Tory coalition is in long-term decline both in terms of age and the occupational categories they dip into. There is little chance of an infusion of new blood to reinvigorate the decrepit party.

Meanwhile, sitting atop this slow slope downwards are the interests the Tories represent. One of the successes of New Labour was, for a time, its breaking of a large section of British capital from the Conservatives. For their part the Tories under Dave and Osborne were only able to remake themselves as a sectional party of capital, one attuned to the finance capital that flowed through the City, as well as the most backward, least competitive and labour intensive sectors. After the referendum and the assumption of office by Theresa May, for a brief interregnum it looked like these sections were no longer dominant as her one nation programme held out the promise of a more rounded and thought-out approach to the collective interests of capital, a la Labour's 2015 manifesto. While she was strong she could manage the misgivings and point at the alternative. She could indulge the temptation to gamble high stakes on little wins, just like her predecessor. The no deal is better than a bad deal idiocies for upticks in the polls, and the snap election itself were such. Yet as soon as her authority was shattered, so the coalition of capital in her train also fragmented with Brexit at the epicentre of growing tensions. It's no accident the political question our cast of pretenders only really differ on is the future relationship with the European Union.

Unfortunately for the Tories, there is not one dominant force or set of interests among them. The sorts of interests Dave courted and championed perceived themselves to be largely independent from the EU. As we're seeing, some are getting a rude awakening. Ditto for the factions of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Therefore we have the absurd situation of the weakest Prime Minister of my life time is being allowed to go on because the succession would be bloody, and no one really wants Number 10 right now. Except perhaps the present Leader of the Commons, and Jeremy Corbyn. Therefore the situation is unchanged. For all the gnashing of teeth and awful headlines, the alignments in the Chamber and in the country gives May space to carry on limping on, as per early this summer.

What we are seeing is the new normal for the Tories. If May stays, nothing changes. If May goes, nothing changes. The fractiousness is locked in. The instability is, ironically, the stable condition, and there isn't going to be a resolution until Britain steps out of the EU. And it's not entirely impossible the political storm that follows might blow the Tory party apart.


Speedy said...

No amount of evidence will shift most Leave voters views because their own sense of identity is now so entwined with their vote - they can't afford to be "wrong". This is a psychological rather than sociological phenomenon IMHO, the same exhibited by cult members etc.

So you're right, no change there. I have wondered what the evolutionary edge is, though. However it does seem consistent to me with the way that people cling to logicially inconsistent ideas because doing do - if they are part of the mainstream - has served them well their whole life. Hence you have Brexiters who live among peer groups who read the Mail etc, and equally, Lefties whose views blow with the editorial direction of the Guardian. Independent thought is frowned upon, because conformity, regardless of illogic and inconsistency, had served them well in life. Except when it doesn't. That's when they start looking for scapegoats.

George Carty said...

To me it seems like the more appropriate analogy would be with a gang rather than a cult, and voting Leave was their "initiation". The fact that Brexit is in fact harmful to Britain is a feature rather than a bug, as it gives Leave voters a shared guilt that ensures their loyalty.