Tory Uncivil War based on Europe but continued on everything else?

The dust has begun to settle on the budget and Ian Duncan Smith’s dramatic resignation: not enough that said to know what is going to happen in the medium term. The episode was, however, much worse than the Omnishambles of the 2012 budget. It revealed a series of fault lines within the Conservative Party that do not simply relate to Europe but the coverings over which are cracking under the weight of that juggernaut.

The Conservative Party like any political party is a coalition of different people with differing political philosophies. The Conservative Party also lacks much in the way of ideology. This is not per se an insult and they have frequently made much of their pragmatism. Cynics might suggest that their main interest is power and they will do all sorts of things and make all sorts of changes, U turns and volte faces in order to get and keep that power.

Their extremely broad and loose coalition has given them very significant strength. It also, however, underpins some of their problems.

Ian Duncan Smith was of course no socialist but did seem to adopt something of a “Noblese Oblige” approach over the changes to the welfare system. He seemed to want to make it better to be in work and try to persuade / force those who could work but would not to change their position and work. In this his philosophy is probably not that different to the likes of Labour’s Frank Field. However, their approaches were different and indeed the fact that thus far both have had little success shows what an impossible problem welfare reform is.

Welfare Reform has been a major problem for many years in the UK. As Nicholas Whyte observed previously it is often surrounded by claims of “Undeserving Poor” and tales of mothers of 10 going on cruises at public expense. It is, however, more usually simply boring stuff like helping the elderly, disabled people etc. Not that said that there is no fraud but the total amount is probably limited. Equally there are examples of not fraud but odd use of a system that at times positively discourages people returning to work.

If Duncan Smith was trying from a “Compassionate Conservative” position to change welfare Osborne has been making more calculated moves to do with saving money, reducing the deficit and not annoying Tory voters (remember a great deal of welfare is pensions and pensioners vote and vote Tory).

That disconnect between the very political and very free market Tory and the more “social conscience Tory” has long been a fault line (it underpinned the Corn Laws debates albeit with a great deal of self interest thrown in).

Another disconnect is the simple fact that various senior members of the Tory Party seem personally to despise one another. The group of clearly very intelligent, clearly very well educated Oxbridge types does seem to look down intellectually (and possibly socially) on some of the others – though for what it is worth neither Osborne nor Cameron went beyond an initial degree.

Equally one cannot see the likes of Iain Duncan Smith nor Michael Gove being members of the Bullingdon Club and the social liberalism of a number of the senior figures in the government is unlikely to ingratiate them with some of the grass roots. The very grass roots that some senior Tories have been recorded saying very rude things about.

These fault lines of course do not run in any particularly logical or neat fashion. Boris Johnston is the darling of many yet is about as far from a social conservative as one could get.

All these personalities and groups seemed to be held together relatively well during the coalition: they were intensely grateful to be back in power after the longest period in opposition for a hundred years. The problems and tensions could often be blamed on the Liberal Democrats who seemed to act as a lightening conductor, scapegoat and eventually sacrificial lamb for all sorts of people.

The election victory of last year seemed to surprise the Tories as much as it did everyone else. However, that delight with Cameron’s victory has begun to fade with assorted people who still have not been promoted no longer fobbed off by the fact that some Liberal Democrats needed to have jobs. Furthermore the lack of a dangerous opposition in Labour has allowed the Tories to indulge in what has become their favourite hobby – political infighting.

Overarching all of this is the Europe referendum. I said above that the Tory Party lack a collective ideology but one of the things its members seem ideologically committed to either for or against is the European Union. The row over Europe and its increasing ferocity for the Tories internally is now bringing all these other issues out as the paper covering the cracks over personal and political differences begins to tear.

It is important to remember that no other major political party has a major fault line disagreement over Europe (apart possibly from the UUP) with Labour only contributing a small number of Leave supporters, whilst the Liberal Democrats are solidly pro as are the Scottish and Welsh nationalists (and SDLP and Sinn Fein) whilst UKIP and the DUP are against.

As such although the Tory war is centrally about Europe it has now become about so many other things and so many different people jockeying for the leadership after Cameron leaves. This has only been exacerbated by Osborne’s failed budget, it has weakened his leadership ambitions and as such if a pro EU leader is wanted Theresa May would look a good alternative if Osborne keeps making mistakes. On the other hand on the anti EU side there is of course Johnson but equally if he is too divisive after the referendum there could be Gove. Indeed one might suggest especially if the UK stays in the EU that there could even be a call for Cameron to stay on to try to steady the ship.

Whatever way it pans out it does not look like an especially smooth ride for the Tories. Exactly who can capitalise on this is of course unclear. However, as I have said before denouncing Corbyn as unelectable (just like Foot before him) just might be premature.

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  • Graham Parsons

    It is looking extremely likely we’ll see another general election much earlier than within 5 years. Britexit and a new tory leader will go to the country. Stay in the EU and the tories might pull themselves apart. Corbyn and Labour don’t need a majority. They just have to stop a tory majority.

    Osbourne was never particularly clever, just lucky and his luck might be running out.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I appreciate the mention, Turgon.

    Just to pick up on one point:

    for what it is worth neither Osborne nor Cameron went beyond an initial degree.

    I believe that only one British prime minister had a postgraduate academic qualification (Gordon Brown), and only one other had worked as an academic (Harold Wilson). On the other hand, none of Lloyd George, MacDonald, Churchill, Callaghan or Major attended university at all. The correlation between academic brilliance and political success is weak, if not actually negative.

    The education of the elite is really a process of socialisation and networking rather than a transfer of knowledge. Nine of the twelve prime ministers since Churchill, including Cameron, graduated from Oxford. (The other three being Major and Callaghan, who did not go to university, and Brown who went to Edinburgh.) Oxford and Cambridge have existed since the 16th century as a mechanism for equipping the London with bankers, lawyers, civil servants, and politicians, with the odd bit of world-beating research tagged on. It’s been a successful business model, but it has its limitations as well.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It looks like the Tories are just going to go nearly 50:50 on Europe, well that seems right.

    Tories hedge, that’s what they do, pretty much fulfils the stereotype doesn’t it?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Turgon, for a fine analysis of the all important problem of just how little cohesion our current ruling party actually has under stress. The Conservatives have, since “The Strange Death of Liberal England” offered a political home alongside the older Tory tradition of the party for that old “High Whiggery” who preferred power to the sinking Liberal party. It was a situation rather like the amalgam of the three older local regiments of the army into the Royal Irish Rangers in 1968, where two fusileer regiments (line infantry) and one rifle regiment (light skirmishing infantry) had to merge training and skills. Having to accommodate such disparate traditions has ensured that no cohesive ideology within modern Conservatism has been at all possible. Inheriting the primarily economic interests of the Whig tradition has always ensured a default position of political schizophrenia within the party after any election has passed. I get told a lot of this from cousins “over the water”, old fashioned Tories who have increasingly viewed the Thatcher/post Thatcher radicalism of the party as an “alien country” in which they find no real home. The Europe debate suggests a “clean war” where issues they fully understand such as “national sovereignty” are again under discussion.