18 February 2016

Where Tim Montgomerie leaps, others will follow


Two of the most attractive qualities in a politico are unpredictability and independence of mind. Sadly, they’re also unhealthily rare. Too many of us decide at the outset which side of the ideological divide to park our backsides on, absorb all the received opinions, and more or less stop thinking. It makes life easier and a bit less complicated, I guess, but it’s an intellectual wasteland – how can life’s journey be one of unchanging absolutes?

My friend, the activist and writer Tim Montgomerie has both qualities in buckets. He has developed into one of the Conservative Party’s 21st century standing stones – indeed, it is quite hard to imagine modern British Conservatism without him. His bona fides are long established: he worked as chief of staff to Iain Duncan Smith when the latter was Tory leader, co-founded the Centre for Social Justice think tank and created the ConservativeHome website. He is arguably the movement’s most prominent and influential commentator.

But while Tim has campaigned passionately for Tory governments and Tory causes, he is also deathlessly free-spirited. As a voice for the traditional grassroots, he has taken regular swipes at the Cameron modernisers when they have pursued power at the expense of principle. At the same time, his views have become more progressive on issues such as gay marriage, the minimum wage and taxation. His current project, The Good Right, seeks to define and promote a form of compassionate conservatism that is unafraid to speak with a moral heart, that while unashamedly pro-capitalist demands capitalists act virtuously, and that sees a positive role for government. You could describe it as a Tory party for the little guy. Tim has never stopped thinking.

Today, his unpredictability resurfaced in spectacular fashion when, in his weekly Times column, he announced that after 28 years he was resigning his membership of the Conservative Party. While Tim’s growing disenchantment with the current leadership has been obvious for a while, the decision still came as a shock. In his article, he said he was ‘glad that Mrs Thatcher cannot see what her party has become… the overall direction of housing, tax, pensions, immigration and family policy has been to intensify inequality between the propertied and the unpropertied, between the old and young, and between those without children and those with.’

David Cameron ‘promised to bring down immigration but despite Theresa May’s hollow rhetoric, it’s rising. And that defining mission to eliminate the deficit? The Treasury is still borrowing £75 billion a year — a burden on the next generation that would once have shocked and shamed us, and still should. The national debt is up by more than 50 per cent, but this hasn’t seen our armed forces rebuilt. They’ve been cut to the bone.’

Let’s be honest: none of these criticisms is particularly new, and Tim has made them many times before from within the tent. The game-changer is clearly the EU referendum – and the heart of his piece is this: ‘If Britain remains chained to Brussels after this charade we’ll be in a weaker position than before. We’ll be the country that made Eurosceptic noises for decades but capitulated when it mattered. The EU’s bureaucracy, courts and politicos will see us as all-bark, no-bite moaning minnies.’

Tim has long been an Outer, and for him the referendum debate has, as for the rest of us, aroused the animal spirits (as a convinced Remain supporter, I can confirm a number of ‘spirited’ exchanges between us). I suspect what he sees as the Tory high command’s cynical jiggery-pokery has driven him to this dramatic act. As something of a habitual flouncer-outer myself, I can only applaud his style.

In June last year, I copped a bit of flak for writing a CapX article predicting that the EU vote would be considerably more divisive than was widely anticipated. This was based on my experiences of the Scottish independence referendum and my observations over that period of human behaviour and its fairly universal application. I wrote: ‘Ultimately, we are about to ask the people of Britain an existential question: who are you? They will know that their voice counts this time, and that the consequences of the decision will be enormous and era-defining. They will think about themselves, their family and their country. They will get angry with the other side. Some very harsh words will be exchanged. Tempers will be lost and relationships fractured. And afterwards, whatever the outcome, the losers will be very sore, for a long time.’

Even before we get to arguing about the EU, the traditional clans of British politics have been weakened. There are currently about five different Labour parties, none of them speaking to each other or remotely capable of winning an election; the Lib Dems are little more than an ongoing internal squabble over who felt up whom; the SNP is somehow still attracting actual grown adults rather than just excitable students in badge-festooned duffle coats; Ukip is a significant national presence despite its one Westminster seat; the Tories have rediscovered their lust for power but perhaps without a clear idea of what it’s for. There is a scent of change in the air, even if the question ‘change to what?’ does not yet have an answer.

The EU referendum is likely to give things a shove. It will certainly pit friend against friend and colleague against colleague and Tory against Tory. It will further expose a party system that one can’t help but feel is stuck in the 20th century and at the wrong side of a new industrial revolution. It will force us to ask some pretty profound questions of ourselves, and not just whether we are for Leave or Remain. I doubt Tim Montgomerie will be the last person to jump clear.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.