I’ve been travelling back from my short break in North Yorkshire today but I have a headache. Tories have been blowing into dog whistles all day and the tinny noise has been reverberating from as far away as Whitby.
For years now, this blog has been reminding readers that the problem with Cameron is not Cameron per se but the fact that he doesn’t have any control of his party; indeed, the party has control of him. And that party is, to put it politely, out of control. As it stands, even when the CCHQ says one thing, there are enough hints and suggestions out there to make it clear that it simply isn’t going to pan out like that. I offer you two (and a half) bits of evidence from the past 48 hours:
Firstly, this John Bercow business. There is an interesting debate to be had about how the Lib Dems should respond*, but for the Tories their recourse should be obvious for four reasons. Firstly, Bercow is a Tory MP, for good or ill. They didn’t kick him out and he didn’t defect – in any respectable party that has to count for something. Secondly, as the party which has always positioned itself as the defender of Parliamentary convention, to oppose Bercow would be to politicise the role of the speaker to an intolerable level. Thirdly, allowing UKIP a foot in the door to the House of Commons will have consequences that the Conservative Party would be better off not having to live with. Broadly speaking, the Tories can afford to triangulate the anti-Europe right in General Elections for the simple reason that they have nowhere to go – just as Labour has successively triangulated the far left for two decades now. Once UKIP start getting MPs however, this all changes. Fourthly, as Farage himself happily acknowledges, he is the king of sleaze.
Yet this doesn’t appear to be happening. Jonathan Calder offers a good summary of the initial bloggers’ reaction to Farage’s decision to oppose Bercow yesterday. But the support seems to go much higher than just a bunch of rabid bloggers. Tim Montgomerie reported this morning that someone from CCHQ had effectively given a green light for Tories to support Farage, claiming that because Bercow wouldn’t be an official Tory candidate CCHQ would turn a blind eye. Eventually an official statement from the party contradicted this but it took them six whole hours to put it out.
Clearly the people that Eric Pickles likes to call the “boys and girls” at CCHQ have been feeling conflicted and decided to leave Bercow on the dangle for nearly two days before lending him his support. Conservative Home’s new poll suggesting that 64% of Tory members would prefer Farage over Bercow. If two-thirds of Labour members in 1997 had said they’d like a chance of electing, say, Arthur Scargill you can bet the Tories would have made something of it.
Secondly, we have Dan Hannan’s mysterious promotion. It is one thing for Cameron to try to disown Hannan as an eccentric on the fringe of the party, quite another if just weeks after causing him so many problems Hannan gets a fat reward. Hannan flexed his muscles this summer and it was Cameron who flinched, just as we saw back in 2007 when for a time the only thing resembling a Conservative Party policy on education was support for something called “grammar streaming.”
And my “half”? Well, I’d like to cite Kit Malthouse’s extraordinary intervention claiming to have taken control of Scotland Yard, except that, like Jonathan Calder, I’m struggling to see what the fuss is about. I’m very sceptical of the Tory idea of elected police sheriffs and if what Malthouse was suggesting was that they have effectively imposed this in London I’d be fearful. But what we have is a Police Authority and I’d rather see that have control over day to day policing than the Home Office.
With all that said, if Malthouse and Johnson want to claim responsibility for the Met over the last year, then they are the ones we have to blame for the appalling behaviour of the police back in April. If this is the sort of policing we are to see under a Tory government then we have good reason to be fearful.
All in all, what we are looking at is a Conservative Party that is very different to the one being projected by David Cameron. This is very different to the situation in 1997 when we faced a New Labour government with a firm grip on the remaining Old Labour rump. The electorate might think it is voting for a warm, fluffy, “progressive” party but what it will get is a fairly ravenous beast. The clues are all there, the headbangers are telling anyone who will listen and the Tory leadership are frankly indulging them in a hope that they don’t get their heads bitten off. The problem is, Labour has done such a poor job over the past couple of years, and the Lib Dems have failed to spell out enough of an alternative, that to a large extent I suspect that enough of the electorate is in the mood to vote the Tories in now and repent at leisure.
* I’ve given this some thought today and while I think fielding a candidate is certainly not something I would automatically rule out, I’m not currently persuaded that it would be a good idea. We could never afford to target it to the extent that UKIP will be able to (we’ll have considerably more target seats) and a half-hearted campaign will only serve to make Farage more credible. Things might change – if Bercow really looked like a dead duck we might have to reconsider – and I certainly agree that any party which supports democratic reform shouldn’t be too deferential to existing Parliamentary conventions (the existing convention couldn’t operate under a PR system in any case), but at the moment there seem to be far more cons than pros.