Mark Reckless may look like Philip Larkin, the reactionary who was also one of Britain’s greatest poets of the past century, but his conservatism is different. The MP voted for same-sex marriage. That is brave work in the Conservative party, to which he belonged, never mind the UK Independence party he has just joined. Douglas Carswell is another defector who is better understood as a Whig than a plain rightwinger.
What makes the Tories the most consistently unmanageable major party in the western world are not the views of its rebels, which are neither base nor unusual, but the certainty with which they hold them. They believe there is one Truth, which is knowable to humans. They are affronted when their world view is not made real in its entirety by the prime minister, David Cameron. They think of politics as a total war between ideologies with a decisive outcome, not the endless haggle it has always been. For people who like to invoke nationhood, they possess little of what defines the British: doubt.
It is important to understand the nature of Tory sedition because Mr Cameron’s second term as prime minister, if there is such a thing, will probably succumb to it. Next year’s general election is one that each of the main parties can win, and both might quietly hope to lose. A Labour government fronted by Ed Miliband will writhe like a tortured animal for five years as it tries to reconcile beliefs it cannot afford with spending cuts it cannot avoid. With no majority in England, and led by a man whom voters take as seriously as a municipal environment officer, the government could end in the kind of shambles that takes a generation to live down.
That might still be better than the ordeal awaiting a Conservative administration. Having threatened to break in two for the past couple of decades, the Tories might finally do it, with Europe as the familiar casus belli. We cannot know what Mr Cameron’s project to revise the terms of Britain’s EU membership will come to, but it will not be enough for the third or more of his MPs who crave exit regardless. The looming election is suppressing dissent, and still there are defections. Imagine the Hobbesian war of all against all that will start on the first day of a renewed Cameron premiership.
The prime minister is damned as an establishment quisling by so many Tories. It is worth checking the record. He has withdrawn his party from the centre-right caucus in the European Parliament. He would like to reopen the EU treaties and has promised a referendum on membership. If the MPs to his right can think of a more eurosceptic UK prime minister – in deed, not just sentiment – they should name him or her.
At home, the government is overseeing the most sustained fiscal contraction since the second world war, and simultaneous reforms of every public service. It has taken so many people out of tax as to starve itself inadvertently of receipts. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which invigilates the government’s fiscal management, spending on public services will fall to the lowest share of national income since 1938 in the next parliament.
The Tories have done all this with an electoral mandate that can be kindly described as qualified. And they are still doing it. Their conference in Birmingham this week is throwing up policies that are not easily mistaken for noblesse oblige. On Monday, George Osborne electrified Tories by abolishing a tax on bequests. The chancellor announced deeper incursions into welfare. Mr Cameron’s address on Wednesday will not trash Ukip but flatter its voters into supporting him. Mr Miliband is drubbed by commentators for trying to carry Labour into office on the back of its core vote, but the Tories are doing something similar.
Press the right on what more Mr Cameron could realistically do for them, and they waffle about personal snubs. He is high-handed, yes, but he is the prime minister. His first duty is to run a country, not to wet-nurse a minority of mewling intransigents in his party. The right has had an astonishingly good deal from him over the years. If it was not enough, nothing he does in the next parliament will be enough either. And if they believe Britain will elect a considerably more conservative government in their lifetime, their confidence is better than their judgment.
At this point, it is customary to prescribe this or that course of action. But there is little Mr Cameron can do. A quarter of a century has passed since Tories were happy with a leader. This says more about them than the leaders. Perhaps the rebels will eventually join Ukip en masse, leaving behind a manageable Tory party in the political equivalent of a good bank-bad bank restructuring. But while they remain, they will not be sated. The falcon cannot hear the falconer, as another poet of these isles once wrote.
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