30 November 2015

Weird Westminster and the toxic Tories


Anyone who spends any time around Westminster, who ever pops into a pub within shouting distance of Parliament, knows the peculiar intensity with which young Conservatives play politics. Advisers and the staff of MPs can be seen mixing with aspiring lobbyists and a smattering of hacks and bloggers, all sharing the latest gossip and refuelling. While party conference is Tory Westminster on tour, week in week out the jostling and trading goes on near Parliament. What are they drawn to? Passers by on the way to the tube can only guess. Some of the young Tories must love politics, ideas or the allure of power. Perhaps others know that David Cameron began as an adviser a little like them working in Westminster straight out of Oxford, and look what happened to him. Whatever the reason, for all the brightness and commitment of many of those involved, the overall vibe of the Westminster environs after work is weird.

It was in that strange milieu that Mark Clarke, who is 37 or 38 according to media reports, prospered. I can remember when he was a “bright young thing” after the election of Cameron in 2005. At the Sunday Telegraph, years ago, he was included in a small group of rising stars who were photographed together and interviewed about their hopes for the future. Clarke was a mine of information for the political team, I remember. He seemed like a cheeky chappie who knew what was going on at Tory headquarters. He failed to win a seat in 2010 and disappeared. When he reappeared before the 2015 election I only remember seeing a picture of him on Twitter and thinking he was far too old to be running a Tory youth movement, but thought nothing more of it.

After all, the chatter about Team 2015, the initiative of the then co-chairman Grant Shapps, and about the Road Trip 2015 movement that Clarke ran, had been so positive during and after the election. As Tim Montgomerie explained on CapX at the weekend, both initiatives were the product of Tory decline, as the membership plummeted and it became more difficult to get people to knock on doors. In a tough general election that the Tories were desperate to win, Roadtrippers would fill the gap on jaunts organised by Clarke.

Experienced activists complained that this was no replacement for a proper thriving membership. They were dismissed by the centre, often rudely, as people who didn’t understand the new paradigm.

But some cabinet ministers were very impressed by the Road Trip scheme. It seemingly removed all the need for pesky members with their annoying opinions. You just bussed in lots of enthusiastic youngsters into key seats to create the impression of some campaigning energy, and back at HQ the clever people with their data operation plotted a path to victory.

Now, the oldsters know how morally suspect aspects of that winning approach were. The Road Trip shenanigans look appalling and an investigation is underway. A promising young man – Elliot Johnson – seems to have taken his own life over an argument about Tory politics that seems utterly pointless in the grand scheme. If only someone in a position of authority in the party hierarchy had protected him when he complained and/or told him that what seemed important in his early 20s would fade as he progressed through life.

What happens now? Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home and a former Tory MP, writing in the Telegraph, has called on Lord Feldman to resign as party chairman. Feldman is arguably closer to Cameron even than George Osborne, and the Tory leader will be extremely reluctant to lose him. There will be a lot of disquiet among Tory MPs, however. All the silliness of young Toryism now looks very serious indeed. Imagine your son or daughter caught up in it.

Beyond that, and beyond all the hindsight of those of us who should have addressed these themes down the years in print, there are some hard lessons for the Tories and for others. Here are five:

1) Duty of care. When young people who want to be involved in politics show up, the organisation has a moral and practical duty to take their welfare seriously and to handle complaints about conduct professionally. Not always easy, but essential.

2) David Cameron and George Osborne’s reluctance to have a heavyweight political figure, someone established in their own right, as party chairman, turns out to have been an error. From the start they disregarded the post, giving it to Caroline Spelman, then Pickles, then Baroness Warsi, then Grant Shapps as co-chairman. They might have at various points respected the contributions of these individuals, but they were always second tier and not in the golden circle. Numerous mistakes could have been avoided if the party chairman had the authority to go round to Number 10 and tell the Prime Minister, respectfully, that he was about to cock something up with electoral consequences. The leadership never wanted that, because it represented a challenge to its duopoly. They arrived at the perfect compromise, or what looked perfect, with Lord Feldman, friend of the PM and a talented business person who is a key figure in the Cameroon golden circle. But it made CCHQ a branch of the Cameron operation, rather than a stand alone institution that will outlast Cameron and Osborne.

3) Membership matters, not only because it provides manpower at elections. It plugs a party into locale and community, which is a good in itself because it replenishes parties and keeps them in touch. That does not make the membership infallible. Look at the state of the Labour party. But on the Tory side, teams of ambitious young activists are not an adequate substitute for building a proper party rooted in the country it seeks to serve.

4) The success of the SNP – even on its control-freak model – shows how potent a force a large membership can be.

5) Deracinated machine politics is the Tory order of the day, it seems, and I suspect it will continue to dominate no matter what the outcome of this scandal. There seems to be no appetite at or near the top of the Tory party for regrowing the grassroots, after efforts to do so failed in the early years of Cameron’s leadership. It won’t change, unless, that is, a leadership contender emerges by 2019 who can inspire a genuine revival.

6) The Conservative leadership won a stunning victory in May. But the Tory “brand” for want of a better term, has deep residual problems and is only ever five minutes away from a sleaze-related disaster. Voters – several million of them – made a practical binary choice when faced with the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. That does not mean they love the Tories. Good grief, no. The Tory party remains remote. If a breakaway moderate Labour party ever got going, and the economy malfunctioned, the voters would switch quicker than you can say Major Dan Jarvis, the man described by the New Statesman’s George Eaton as the Labour leader the Tories fear most.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.