My party has gam­bled away its rep­u­ta­tion. Chaos reigns Kate Maltby

The Tories’ core be­liefs were cen­tred on sta­bil­ity. Now, like ad­dicts, they must ad­mit they have a prob­lem

The Guardian - - JOURNAL OPINION -

Seventy-odd years ago my grand­par­ents ar­rived in this coun­try from Hun­gary. Over the next two decades, more rel­a­tives joined them, refugees by turns from fas­cist geno­cide, Soviet to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and eco­nomic col­lapse. My grand­par­ents ar­rived pen­ni­less, started a small fam­ily busi­ness and voted Tory. Only a Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, they told me, would stand firm against the rad­i­cal­ism that had fu­elled the Euro­pean con­flict. They may as well have pinned “strong and sta­ble” to my nappy.

Look around the Tory party to­day, and chaos reigns; Bri­tain feels more so­cially frat­ri­ci­dal than I have ever known it. Two suc­ces­sive Tory lead­ers have gam­bled their ma­jori­ties, first on a Brexit ref­er­en­dum for which the lead­er­ship was woe­fully un­pre­pared, then on a snap elec­tion for which both coun­try and party were un­pre­pared.

Yet even amid the rub­ble, Tory lead­er­ship ma­noeu­vres still re­sem­ble the self-con­grat­u­la­tory land­scape of a colo­nial great game. At the Spec­ta­tor sum­mer party on Thurs­day night, David Davis beamed con­fi­dently as he worked the room, while Boris John­son seemed to revel in the ab­sence of old school ri­val David Cameron. Brief­ings from their sup­port­ers filled the week­end pa­pers. If the prime min­is­ter lasts an­other two years, it will only be be­cause both men are happy for her to ab­sorb the toxic karma of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore they make their move.

Tory power­bro­kers have al­ways been am­bi­tious, but they haven’t al­ways been gam­blers. Now, it seems, they are. A year ago, a friend and I left a ref­er­en­dum re­sults party early and passed a lone Brex­i­teer MP, a young star oc­ca­sion­ally tipped for the Tory lead­er­ship. Drunk­enly bel­low­ing at a friend, he roared with suc­cess. “Ster­ling fall­ing? Who the fuck cares if ster­ling’s fall­ing? You’ll be all right; I’ll be all right. It’s a rev­o­lu­tion!” Call me mad, but I grew up think­ing the Con­ser­va­tive party ex­isted to put the brakes on rev­o­lu­tions.

For cen­turies, Tory voices have been the ones warn­ing against too much change too quickly. If mod­ern Bri­tish con­ser­vatism claims a foun­da­tion text, it is Ed­mund Burke’s Re­flec­tions on the Rev­o­lu­tion in France, a 1790 cau­tion­ary dis­patch against the gory ex­am­ple of the rad­i­cal French. You’ll find at its heart a sim­ple Tory maxim: rev­o­lu­tions leave chil­dren starv­ing and adults bleed­ing.

In Burke, you find even the eco­nomic mantras of 21st-cen­tury con­ser­vatism fore­shad­owed: that sta­bil­ity leads to pros­per­ity, that in­equal­ity is a price worth pay­ing for eco­nomic growth. Of the proto-Cor­byns and their re­dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grammes, he tells us: “Be­lieve me, those who at­tempt to level never equalise.” Like Thatcher or Rea­gan, Burke saw the preser­va­tion of lib­erty as a re­al­is­tic gov­ern­ment goal, equal­ity as an im­pos­si­ble one. Don’t rock the boat, don’t scare the banks, and the mid­dle classes get their quiet life.

So how did the party of Burke bring us the mael­strom of 2017? Tory gov­ern­ments once claimed to be our benev­o­lent par­ents. But liv­ing in mod­ern Bri­tain feels like be­ing one of a fam­ily of anx­ious, squab­bling chil­dren whose par­ents have aban­doned us to get drunk at the casino.

To be fair to the Brex­i­teers, the right in Bri­tain has al­ways con­sisted of an un­easy al­liance be­tween Tory prag­ma­tists and change-hun­gry lib­er­tar­i­ans. The zeal of Daniel Han­nan and Dou­glas Car­swell for di­rect democ­racy is gen­uine. The Plan, their jointly au­thored 2008 man­i­festo, had far more to say about re­form­ing par­lia­men­tary democ­racy – in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing an elected House of Lords – than their con­cur­rent crit­i­cisms of an anti-demo­cratic EU.

One-na­tion prime min­is­ters like Cameron found the lib­er­tar­i­ans use­ful for vot­ing against tax­a­tion, in­con­ve­nient when they got too loud about heavy­handed gov­ern­ment. The Brexit bat­tle is the ob­vi­ous re­cent man­i­fes­ta­tion of this in­ter­nal ten­sion which, un­leashed and unchecked, has caused havoc.

Take David Davis’s his­tory, for in­stance. In 2008, still seething af­ter his de­feat to Cameron in the 2005 lead­er­ship con­test, he re­signed from both cab­i­net and par­lia­ment to force the most point­less by­elec­tion in re­cent his­tory. Os­ten­si­bly, Davis sought a per­sonal man­date to op­pose the Labour gov­ern- ment’s at­tacks on civil lib­er­ties – in par­tic­u­lar, Gor­don Brown’s pro­posal to hold ter­ror sus­pects with­out charge for up to 42 days. But the rest of the Tory lead­er­ship also op­posed Brown’s plans, de­feat­ing them with the aid of 36 Labour rebels. The by­elec­tion cost £80,000 of pub­lic money, turnout was 34%. Davis re­turned to the back­benches, armed with the phone num­bers of sev­eral TV pro­duc­ers.

The el­e­va­tion of Davis to Brexit sec­re­tary, there­fore, was like invit­ing an un­trained ter­rier into the chicken coop. It should sur­prise no one that Davis had been boast­ing of a de­ci­sive role in per­suad­ing Theresa May to call a snap elec­tion – he has never been able to re­sist the lure of the swingome­ter. This mis­take alone should dis­qual­ify him from ever be­com­ing Tory leader.

Yet a new leader there must be, even if it takes two years. May seems to ac­cept she can­not lead the party into the next gen­eral elec­tion. The talk at present is of a new leader from the 2010 par­lia­men­tary in­take. That it­self speaks to a weari­ness with the game. The era of the Bulling­don boys – and one Maiden­head girl – has been dis­cred­ited.

But it will take much more than a mea­sured, if faroff, trans­fer of lead­er­ship to re­store the reck­lessly squan­dered Tory rep­u­ta­tion for sta­bil­ity. A com­mit­ment to a tran­si­tional Brexit would help. So too would ig­nor­ing the howls of Tory vot­ers in the green belt and fi­nally un­veil­ing a long over­due house-build­ing pro­gramme. The Tories can’t even think of of­fer­ing savers a pros­per­ous fu­ture if barely any voter un­der 40 feels they have a stake in it. Why be a cap­i­tal­ist if you have no cap­i­tal?

Most of all, the party needs to start from scratch in mak­ing the case for con­ser­vatism. That means prov­ing to the na­tion be­yond doubt that it has bro­ken its ad­dic­tion to the game, to reck­less gam­bling. (Rules of Gam­blers Anony­mous: the first step is ad­mit­ting you have a prob­lem.) Given a choice be­tween a bunch of un­pre­dictable ide­o­logues with a blue rosette and a bunch of un­pre­dictable ide­o­logues with a red rosette, vot­ers are al­ready show­ing that they’ll pick the one with a song that sounds like hope.

The el­e­va­tion of David Davis to Brexit sec­re­tary was like invit­ing an un­trained ter­rier into the chicken coop

Kate Maltby is an as­so­ciate fel­low of con­ser­va­tive think­tank Bright Blue

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