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Tommyknockers. The death of the old Conservative party

September 28th, 2019

Stephen King has produced some dross. One of his worst is a book called Tommyknockers, the premise of which is that an alien spacecraft is found buried in the woods in Maine, and it then starts a creeping possession of the minds and bodies of the local townsfolk, until finally they mutate into the form of the aliens who flew in it. Stephen King himself has stated that he regards this as an awful book.

Nevertheless, it provides a good metaphor for what we have seen happen to the Conservative party in the last few years. Since the EU referendum was unearthed, it has undergone a slow transformation from a placidly liberal party of law and order and sound government into an angry and wild English nationalist mob.

Wednesday was the day when the Conservative party spat out the last of its liberal teeth. Fresh from its defeat in the Supreme Court, where the government had been found to have made an illegal attempt to suspend Parliamentary democracy, the party of law and order might have been expected to have been whipped and cowed.  

Not a bit of it. The government decided that the Supreme Court had got the law wrong and only its current inability to place itself above it meant that it would grudgingly comply with it. No apologies, no contrition for unconstitutionally suspending democracy. The Attorney General, so far from humiliated that his advice had been shredded, decided to boom out his opinion that this Parliament is dead.  

The Prime Minister refused to apologise and took the opportunity to rail over and over against what he termed the “Surrender Act”. In the face of outrage from opposition MPs, who queued up to ask him to moderate his language given the death threats they were receiving from those who adopted the Prime Minister’s words, he doubled down, describing as “humbug” a reference to Jo Cox and arguing that the best way to honour her was to get Brexit done.  

For a man who once professed a desire to unite the country, he’s doing a terrible job. His hero, Winston Churchill, once said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson was not prepared to go even that far to help woo the support of potentially biddable Labour MPs.

Most importantly, however, was the lack of queasiness on the Conservative benches. No Cabinet ministers resigned and no MPs have called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, despite his personal involvement in the greatest affront to democracy in living memory and its crushing rejection by the Supreme Court. Just a small handful of Conservative MPs who still hold the whip have expressed any qualms about Boris Johnson’s language, and none has done so in anything other than the weakest terms. The takeover of the Conservative party is pretty much complete.

(Amazingly, this takes place against the backdrop of a scandal that all by itself would have the potential to bring down a Prime Minister. When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson apparently steered funds and access to the start-up business of a young woman to whom he was very close at the time. Lord Sandwich supposedly said to John Wilkes: ‘You will either die of a pox or on the gallows’. Wilkes retorted: ‘That depends, my Lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles’. Boris Johnson seems to be attempting a unique double.)

Where next? There is no way back. The Conservatives have had a clean break divorce from prudence. In two short months, Boris Johnson has burned the party’s bridges. It will be a long time before we next see a Conservative leader who smoothly seeks to persuade the country that he or she will offer stable and strong government.

Instead, the Conservatives have cast their lot with populism. With Labour firmly campaigning as outsider insurgents as well, an opportunity is going begging for any party that wishes to campaign as the party of quiet competence and measured governance. The Lib Dems look very well-placed to pick that up, if they so choose.

The interesting question is whether they should actively seek this vote out.  There’s definitely a section of the public that votes for good government. However, the recent past has shown (and the Lib Dems’s own resurgence indicates) that having a tubthumping platform is a good vote-getter.

The Lib Dems, more than any other party, now stand at a crossroads. They have a big decision to make about their approach to the dissident Conservatives, who come from this spat-out strand of the Conservative party.  Do they seek to co-opt them or do they seek to leave them to be eclipsed? It would be a big message if, for example, David Gauke, Justine Greening or Dominic Grieve were to join them — but that message would be heard by left of centre voters as well as right of centre voters and may repel some voters as well as attract others.

It’s a big call and not an easy one. For what it’s worth, I think they should look to broaden their tent and actively reach out to those Conservatives who the current Conservative party not only rejects but regards as hate figures. In the coming years, having steadiness as a USP may be very valuable indeed.

Alastair Meeks