Sometimes you really cannot win. Consider the twin cases of David Cameron and George Osborne, for instance. Amongst committed Remain voters — which, it still needs to be said, includes a chunky portion of the Conservative party’s supporters — George’n’Dave are the boys who got us into this damn Brexit mess in the first place. That is something that can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
Still, the reaction to their post-defenestration lives is instructive. Last week The Sun reported that Cameron’s thoughts have lately returned to politics. He would, the paper suggested, be interested in returning to the front line. Becoming foreign secretary would suit him nicely, thank you very much.
It must be said that this seemed an improbable aspiration. No former prime minister has held a cabinet post since Alec Douglas-Home was Ted Heath’s foreign secretary. Moreover, Cameron is not currently even an MP, having recognised — reluctantly, I believe — that remaining in the Commons would put his successor in an intolerable position while being no kind of fun for him either.
The reaction to this piece of Westminster gossip was also revealing. It was not, it seems fair to say, well-received. Just who does David Cameron think he is? And why does he think we might wish to hear anymore from him?
This marked a new phase in Cameron’s unwinnable post-politics career. Hitherto he has chiefly been derided for retreating to his fancy “shepherd’s hut” — a sheep-carer’s dwelling in the same sense an Aston Martin is just the ticket for the Tesco run — and disappearing so very thoroughly it sometimes requires some effort to remember the poor man was ever prime minister at all. How dare he carry on as though nothing has happened, his critics aver, how dare he slip away from his culpability? He is disgraced and a disgrace and should be man enough to admit it. Only the weak and the feeble depart the arena like this. But that does not mean, as the reaction to last week’s stories demonstrated, he is welcome back either. Cameron’s role is to be an objet of scorn; he is a piñata not a politician these days.
But then there is Osborne. Six jobs — or is it seven, truth to tell I can never quite remember — George has not left the arena and that, it seems, is pretty close to unforgivable too. Granted, working for Blackrock is a very well remunerated hardship, but it is Osborne’s berth editing the Evening Standard that really exercises his critics. Not all of those are found in the Remain camp; some of Osborne’s erstwhile parliamentary colleagues cannot abide him either. And not all of those critics are located on the Brexit wing of the Tory party.
If Cameron doesn’t say enough, Osborne apparently says too much. So his admission to Newsnight last week that, by gum and by jove, the official Remain campaign didn’t quite get everything right was greeted by a round of raspberries. Talk about understating the bleeding obvious! It’s a bit late to be admitting this now! It might have been an idea to think about this at the sodding time! The message was clear; these belated admissions — or perhaps confessions — were too little, too late. Save it George, you ain’t worth it. Better, perhaps, not to have spoken at all.
But if Cameron’s insouciance, his whistling nothing-to-do-with-me-guv retreat, annoys then so too, evidently, does Osborne’s desire to remain a player. There should be consequences for this kind of failure, people think, not fresh golden tickets for already wealthy men. Vengeance, of a kind, must be delivered.
Well, maybe. Understandable as such emotions may be they also serve as an unfortunate distraction from what Osborne is saying now. Shooting the messenger means ignoring the message too. And Osborne has some things that are worth paying attention to.
It may be rich for him to deplore the manner in which the government in which he was the second-most prominent figure spent too little time thinking about how it should actually win the referendum it unexpectedly found itself having to fight but when he notes that there is little future for the Tories in trying to “out-Ukip Ukip” he has a point just as he is on to something when he suggests there is little advantage in taking on Jeremy Corbyn “by trying to out-Corbyn Corbyn”.
Between these extremities there ought to be a functioning Conservative party. If you squint, you can still see remnants of it. There are MPs — George Freeman, for instance — who recognise that the party needs to re-examine its purpose. There are ministers — Rory Stewart, in charge of prisons, for instance — who recognise the value of a reforming, liberal, Toryism but, in general and especially at the highest levels, this is a government so consumed with its own day-to-day struggles and so overwhelmed by Brexit that it’s incapable of making a coherent case for its own relevance or necessity. There is no grip because there is no vision and because there is no vision there is no message and no inspiration. It is a government being kept alive by the impossibility and incoherence and extremism of the Labour party.
That is the curious feature of British politics right now. We have two parties, one of whom must always be in government, but neither of which are fit for governing right now. They both belong in opposition.
Even without Brexit — a thought so blissful it must be put beside a belief in fairies — the Tories would be facing a problem: how do you renew yourself after eight years in office? All governments have a shelf-life and it’s not much, if at all, longer than eight years. More of the same is not an option except in unusually happy times and these, if you had not noticed, are not those kinds of times. So there must be change. But how to change without repudiating what went before?
Indeed, if you take the view that governments are elected on the back of and in response to their predecessors’ failures then the end — or the approaching end, if you are the chancellor — of the age of austerity is in fact a signal that this government’s natural life is coming to an end. It may have taken a bloody difficult decade to get there but, at last, the public finances are in respectable order. The roof is patched, if not wholly fixed.
So what is next? Osborne at least recognises that this is a question the Conservative party must ask. Asking the right questions is not enough, though I’m not sure the country — or the party — is really all that interested in Osborne’s answers. He and Cameron are yesterday’s men. Just two years on from their humiliation, they seem already to belong to some long ago and distant, barely-remembered, age. If they rose with little trace, they have sunk even faster and not even broadsides from the Evening Standard’s editorial column can or will change that.
The difficulty is that, having put us into Brexit, it becomes difficult for the Tory party to tell the electorate that the Conservatives are the only people who can be trusted to get us out of — or, rather, beyond — Brexit. Just as restoring the public finances is a form of “job done” so too does March 29th loom as the day when, for a while at least, Brexit will have been delivered. That will swiftly seem like a moment for resetting British politics. So what does the Conservative party do then?