What happened to the Conservative Party?

The Spectator, by Alex Massie

So now we know. There is no point in denying it and no advantage in wishing away plainly observable reality. The Conservative and Unionist party that exists today is not the Conservative and Unionist party of old. In spirit, and increasingly in personnel, it is now closer to Nigel Farage and the Brexit party than the traditions of the strain of One Nation Toryism Boris Johnson professes to embody.

That is the obvious lesson to be drawn from the expulsion of Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Greg Clark, Nicholas Soames and the rest of the 21 Tory ‘rebels’ who voted against this already-rickety government this week. A Tory party that not only has no room for them but actively pushes them away is not a broad church, it’s closer to a cult.

It’s a sign of weakness not of strength and even, perhaps, an indication of fear too. Brexit ‘by any means necessary’ because this is a ‘do or die’ moment for the Tory party testifies to that. There is a pungent stench of panic in Downing Street. The clever-clever chaps may claim this is all part of their cunning plan but making yourself a minority government is a curious way of demonstrating your political genius. And it keeps on coming, you know. This morning Jo Johnson, the prime minister’s brother, has announced his resignation citing an unresolvable conflict between ‘family loyalty and the national interest’. Having divested himself of his parliamentary majority, the prime minister finds himself a minority in his own family.

Seeing off the threat of Nigel Farage and his Brexit party wolves is one thing, doing so while jettisoning Toryism is quite another. The Brexit party has, as a functional matter, taken over the Conservative party. You could call it Nukip, I suppose.

Whatever else this may be it is antithetical to the calmer Tory traditions. But then Brexit, and especially a No Deal Brexit of the sort the government now plainly prefers, is a radical project not a Tory one. Grand projects of this sort have a Robespierrian quality to them and we should always, I think, be wary of politicians who claim to be the will of the people made flesh. The people, bless them, have many qualities but these are not without their own limits.

And besides, which people? There are around five million Tory voters who backed Remain. Do they count for nothing and are they all part of the metropolitan elite and thus easily jettisoned on the grounds of being politically incorrect or inconvenient? Moreover, there are millions more who accept the need for Brexit but not one achieved by any means necessary or at any cost.

No Deal has the advantage of seeming to be quick, easy, and decisive. In reality it is none of these things and is likely to be, at best, a Pyrrhic triumph. Far from ending this political agony it is likely to be a gateway to a much longer, much more troublesome, period of grinding difficulty. It will not be quick. It will not be easy. It will not be decisive. And sometimes getting what you profess to want is the worst thing you can receive.

Britain must Brexit because that is what the voters have instructed. As many of the 21 have observed, they have voted – repeatedly – to Leave. Indeed their commitment to doing so has been rather greater, if measured in terms of parliamentary votes, than that demonstrated by Jacob Rees-Mogg and those of his ilk. They might prefer Britain to have voted to Remain but they are not Remainers and nor are they determined to overturn and reverse the referendum result.

If we are to make a mistake, ’tis best if it be made as small an error as possible. This is a position that has the advantage of being realistic and modest. It makes no great claims and it is, partly because of that, an impeccably Tory position. It must disappoint diehard Remainers but it attempts to reach a balance between the national interest and the demands imposed upon parliament by the blessed British people themselves. No wonder it’s an unfashionable position.

The alternative, however, is recklessness on a historic scale. Brexit does not justify every or any kind of Brexit. Vanishingly few people thought they were voting for a No Deal Brexit, not least because Brexiteers – denying plainly observable reality – assured them a deal would both be easy and one reached after quick and easy negotiations during which the United Kingdom would hold the whip hand. This was a kind of fraud, but there you have it.

The government, meanwhile, is in the hoodwinking business. It pretends to be straining every sinew in pursuit of a deal while doing practically nothing to make such an agreement more probable. Sometimes this chicanery touches absurdity: no deal will be fine for the United Kingdom but a grievous blow to the European Union. Think that one through and watch it collapse at its first encounter with logic.

Most of all, however, this is a question of disposition and sensibility. The spirit of Farage now animates the Conservative party. He is not in parliament but he doesn’t need to be. In practical terms, this government, remarkably, now has more sympathy for Farage than for Ken Clarke. A Conservative party behaving like that is not a Tory party.

Scepticism has been replaced by certainty and prudence by recklessness. As a political choice, the government is obviously within its rights to ally itself with the Brexit party. Nukip is one possible future and, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic as we head towards an election, it may even be a viable one.

But I am not so sure about that. I am not quite persuaded that Johnson’s advantage in the polls is secure. I suspect it might be as secure as a soufflé. Watching his performances in the Commons this week is enough to give you the sense he may suspect this too.

At a certain point and level, politics depends on a measure of trust. What you say is what you mean; what you see is what you get. There is a place, of course there is, for stratagems and a deal of low cunning, but that place is strictly limited. Unless some basis of trust can be established, good faith engagement is all but impossible. It is a remarkable feat to squander or forfeit that elementary trust in your first week back at school but that is what this government has done. Once lost, that good faith will not be regained. That helps explain, I think, the rancour evident this week; the seething mistrust that now cripples this ministry. Who can believe anything they say?

Deploring Boris Johnson entails no endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn and vice versa. Sometimes you do not have to make a choice or express a preference. Sometimes it is enough to note the impossibility of both options. There is every reason to do so now. I certainly have no intention of voting for a Conservative or a Labour party at the next election, whenever it may be held. That’s not escaping the burden of making a choice, it is instead confronting the reality of the dismal situation we face.

Choosing not to choose is itself a choice and right now it feels a little like a rebellion, albeit a rebellion in the cause of decency and normal standards of political behaviour; a rebellion for scepticism and moderation. I doubt I am alone in thinking this and, who knows, we may yet discover it’s a more popular position than you might, perhaps, fear. You need not be alone in thinking ‘Nukip? No way.’