24 August 2015

The ten issues that could divide the Conservative Party


I started wondering very seriously about the health of the Labour Party about a couple of months ago. If my memory serves me correctly I’d seen the Guardian columnist Owen Jones retweet a glowing endorsement from a member of the Battersea Labour Party. The Tweeter had described how Owen Jones had come to speak and how his far left message (my words) had gone down very well with local members. I was in The Times’ offices at the time and turned to ask Philip Collins and David Aaronovitch what was happening to Labour. Were average Labour activists now “Jonesites”? Was this still Tony Blair’s Labour Party? In the outpouring of support for Jeremy Corbyn that we have seen since then my questions have been answered.

Although I certainly didn’t predict a Corbyn victory – and hope it might still be avoided for the sake of keeping Her Majesty’s government on its toes – I’ve been writing about the global splintering of the Left for some time. In the absence of healthy public finances there simply isn’t enough taxpayers’ money around with which left-wing leaders can buy peace in their movements. Heartland Labour voters in poorer parts of Britain often have little in common with environmental and civil liberty campaigners in, say, Islington North and sectional disputes are therefore harder to lubricate in this era of austerity. The very different strands of the rainbow coalitions of the left have been uncomfortable bedfellows for some time but the tensions have seemingly reaching breaking point.

So many issues seem to be pulling the Left and the Labour Party, in particular, apart. The aftermath of the Iraq war. The extent of austerity. Welfare cuts. Taxes on the rich. Nationalisation. Quantitative easing. School choice. Free trade. Trident. Fracking. There is also, of course, the radical Left’s particular bête noire: Israel and a disturbing tendency for anti-Israel attitudes to become anti-Semitic, too. And, last but by no means least, whether to love or loathe Tony Blair. A movement that is split because of so many disputes is not going to be healed quickly or easily.

Matthew Parris keeps arguing that this split on the Left will have consequences for the Right too. In Saturday’s Times (£) he argued that “the Tories’ ugly and neuralgic internal truces would be unlikely to survive the disappearance of our old, sweet enemy: old Labour.” “Potential Tory divisions,” he continued, “are just as great as the actual Labour ones”. Is he right?

It’s not hard to quickly list a range of issues where the Conservative Party might be bifurcating. Here are ten arranged in descending order of explosiveness.

1) Surprise, surprise, Europe is at the top of my list: It’s increasingly obvious to non-sand-loving-ostriches that David Cameron is only seeking a modest renegotiation. Even if he achieves every single one of his limited ambitions Britain still won’t be able to say we want to welcome Syrian Christians rather than Bulgarian plumbers or Indian scientists rather than Slovakian waiters. We’ll still be paying £12 billion (net) into EU coffers. We won’t be able to independently negotiate trade deals as Australia or Canada can do. Our fishing waters will still not be our own. It’s possible we end up in a worse place at the end of this referendum process – with our membership of the European project confirmed and everyone in Brussels concluding that Britain has a lot of bark but no bite. I don’t know what percentage of the Tory Party will hate the final settlement that Cameron delivers but it won’t be a small proportion. If the party is to be at peace a new leader will have to quickly follow the EU referendum.

2) Immigration: The latest Ipsos MORI tracker poll for The Economist found concern about immigration at its highest level ever. Since the election it’s overtaken the NHS as the issue of most concern to voters. The Calais saga has undoubtedly fed anxieties but the issue is not going to disappear from the headlines. Later this week we are expected to learn that net immigration into the UK is continuing to increase – perhaps to over 320,000 – that’s three times above the Tory manifesto promise. German newspapers are fixated on the influx of refugees across European borders – towards growing economies like theirs and our own. Many Tories – not so far away from the Treasury – welcome immigration’s impact on the economy and are not inclined to discourage it. Most voters, in contrast, fret about immigration’s impact on cultural identity, house prices and on the wages of the low-paid.

3) Overseas interventionism: The Tory leadership believes that ISIS won’t be defeated by 30,000 feet bombing missions and that an expanded US/UK role may be necessary to defeat these barbarians. Many Tory backbenchers and grassroots Tory members share a “Stop the War” worldview, however, that western interventionism often makes things worse and any ground role should be led by the region’s Muslim and Arab powers.

4) Welfare cuts: The large and unfair impact of planned tax credit cuts on millions of low income households has produced complaints from at least two Tory MPs: Guto Bebb and Andrew Percy. Personally I hope the rebellion at the impact of cuts on the working poor grows. Deficit reduction is essential but I had hoped we were all in this together.

5) Nimbyism: George Osborne, rightly, sees increasing home ownership and housebuilding as central to the Tories’ long-term political health. A property-owning democracy leans rightwards after all. He’s determined to push further planning reform to overcome home counties nimbyism. It might not be pretty.

6) Scotland: The SNP’s scuppering of the foxhunting vote was only the start of Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to provoke English Tory MPs. At some point those Tories may react – questioning, perhaps, the generous financial settlement that Scotland receives as part of the UK. The Unionist and English nationalist factions within Conservatism may start to clash.

7) And talking of England: The plans for English devolution drafted by William Hague are inadequate and unnecessarily complicated. That, at least, is the view of many Tory MPs who want England to have the same power to initiate legislation as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish already have. Confrontation is coming – perhaps as early as the autumn.

8) Reform of capitalism: Ideally Cameron and Osborne will use the first new majority the party has had since 1992 to correct some of the weaknesses of the way contemporary capitalism (I’m not sure it is real capitalism) works. The Budget’s living wage proposal has begun the process but reforms to corporate governance, a more progressive tax system and less accommodation of asset price inflation would also be desirable. Some free market fundamentalists won’t be happy at such an agenda.

9) Family policy: Iain Duncan Smith has long believed that you defeat poverty by creating jobs, improving schools and strengthening the family. George Osborne was never keen on that third theme of the social justice trinity and in the last parliament he had Nick Clegg as an ally to resist a more socially conservative family policy. IDS will now push marriage and family policy and will have an ally in David Cameron – forever how long he is in Number 10. The party’s laissez-faire wing will push back. It will be interesting to see who wins.

10) Lords reform: The Upper House now has many more members than the elected Commons and is undermining the Tory promise to cut the cost of politics. It is expected to grow even bigger this week when a list of new peers are finally announced. Many are there because of the amount they have given to the different political parties. Of the so-called donor peers £220,000 was given on average by the Conservatives, £333,000 by the Liberal Democrats and £464,000 by the Labour members. Some Tory MPs would like to reform the Lords but Tory peers are, unsurprisingly, not so keen.

It’s not just these kind of divisions that point towards a possible realignment. Other factors include the long-term decline of the two-party system; the way that the main parties have been captured by vested interests (Labour by the public sector, the Tories by the elderly and already propertied); and what I’d call the “Londonisation” of parliamentary representation. I examine these long-term trends here. There is a case, therefore, to be made that a wider realignment might be coming and I’ve made it myself in The Times (£) but I’m less sure than I was that it will happen.

First of all we’ve had the Ukip experience. Tory MPs who might be inclined to cause trouble have seen what happens to the likes of Mark Reckless. They don’t keep their seat. Ukip won four million votes in May but only one MP, Douglas Carswell (on a much reduced majority). Tory HQ is determined that Clacton will be blue again by the next election – pour encourager les autres.

Then there’s the Corbyn experience. Labour is likely to descend into civil war in coming months – and not just if Mr Corbyn wins. Although the absence of a strong opposition might cause more rebelliousness from some Tory MPs it will also highlight the consequences of abandoning all habits of compromise. Defeating a Corbyn-led Labour Party also becomes a duty for every Conservative. It’s one thing to be a party that lets in Blair – it’s quite another to behave self-indulgently and let in a Hamas-IRA-Unite-appeasing Labour leader.

Better party management. Cameron is more conscious of its importance and his current chief whip, Mark Harper, is respected across the parliamentary party. There’s also a sense that his top team and his agenda is more balanced. There is actually more enthusiasm for the Tory manifesto pledges – such as the British Bill of Rights – on the backbenches than in Downing Street.

The final reason for believing that “the Tories’ ugly and neuralgic internal truces” might hold is the changing composition of the parliamentary Conservative Party. There are still thirty to forty MPs who can’t stand Mr Cameron and his politics but even these are a bit more subdued following the majority that Lynton Crosby’s SNP-centred campaign delivered. But then there is Cameron’s greatest achievement. He’s “A-listed” the parliamentary party – an achievement with consequences for long after he is spending more time with Samantha. Many recent MPs still cut their political teeth during the Thatcher years and share many of her beliefs but the 2015 intake, in particular, is much less ideological than those that went before. The party is becoming more like the pragmatic party of government that it was pre-Thatcher. More lawyers, business people and military types that haven’t spent much of their lives fighting seats, writing think tank papers and attending Centre for Policy Studies seminars. It’s an unfinished conversion process and will need probably one more intake to reach a tipping point but pragmatic parties of government don’t split apart.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right.