1990s >> 1999 >> no-1143-november-1999

Greasy Pole: Tories In Trouble

There was once a young Conservative MP who, when he arrived to take his seat, was taken aside by an elder statesman and advised never to forget that the party had a secret weapon, which was loyalty. For a very long time the Tories have traded on that impression—that they are a party which prizes loyalty and unity above all else. There is very little evidence to support this. Even when that new Member was being given that advice the Tory record on the issue was anything but unblemished. In fact their history is studded with examples of splits, intrigues, back-stabbing and manoeuvring to unseat the leader.

For example the 1922 Committee got its name from a rebellious meeting in that year at the Carlton Club which was responsible for toppling Austen Chamberlain from the leadership and thereby bringing down the coalition government under Lloyd George. In 1958 a huge rift opened up in the Macmillan government when all the Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned—an event which Macmillan famously brushed aside as “a little local difficulty”. A few years later Macmillan showed what he thought about loyalty and unity when, in a panic about a little local difficulty at some by-elections he sacked a chunk of his Cabinet including his ever loyal, never complaining Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd who had always made it clear that he was ready and willing to any job, no matter how distasteful, required of him by the government of British capitalism. In more recent times there was the ruthless business of Michael Heseltine and the men in grey suits toppling Margaret Thatcher.

This fractious tradition is still going strong. It is arguable that the Conservative Party has never experienced such disunity and disarray as it does today. What is more it has had no compunction about revealing its splits to the voters at large.

Consider the matter of the ex-ministers’ memoirs. These are very often a welcome source of income and consolation for those who are no longer in the seats of power and who pine for their chauffeur-driven cars, the media attention and the other trappings of office. One difficulty is that the higher sales usually go to the more revealing—the more bitter, scurrilous and bilious—memoirs. If there was ever such a thing as a united government it would be unlikely that its ministers could write their account of life in the Cabinet with the desirable degree of titillation. Of course this is not a problem for the people who so gruesomely ran the government when Thatcher and Major were in Number Ten.

John Major has had his say about Margaret Thatcher, writing her off as a bossy, overbearing and stubborn obstacle to proper government. This is not an example of what is meant by Tory loyalty because Major was Thatcher’s favourite son—the man she wanted to succeed her in 1990. The same might be said about his criticisms of Norman Lamont, who managed Major’s 1990 campaign to succeed Thatcher as Tory leader. Lamont’s reward for this was the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer but unluckily for him this coincided with the kind of financial crisis which Chancellors are supposed to be able to cure but which are beyond them. The so-called Black Wednesday in September 1992 when the Bank Rate went soaring and Sterling was removed from the Exchange Rate Mechanism illuminated how powerless are the experts and the politicians in the face of capitalism’s crises. The decision to take sterling out of the ERM was in stark contrast to Major’s assurance that this would not happen because the solution to British capitalism’s problems was to be a member of it. So Lamont had good cause to be aggrieved, and even more after Major sacked him and now that Major is largely putting the blame for the crisis on his shoulders.

Black Wednesday
Lamont clearly thought that his efforts to get Major into the premiership deserved a more grateful response. Of course had he been practising that Tory loyalty he should have held his tongue, accepted his downfall and given his all in supporting the government, even if that did mean rewriting history a bit. In fact he has been busily engaged ever since in attacks on Major, of varying degrees of subtlety. The version of Black Wednesday in his memoirs differs from that of Major and, as might be expected, does not take the blame for it on himself. Cynical and bitter, Lamont is now a pathetic figure—exiled to the Lords, penning the odd newspaper article, trying to persuade us that Pinochet saved Chile for civilisation and that all those people who disappeared there at the time have gone missing of their own accord.

A lot of this disunity came bubbling sulphurously to the surface at this year’s Tory conference. Naturally they gave William Hague the customary standing ovation but this did not obscure the fact that his grasp on the party leadership is as precarious as ever. Almost as soon as he got the job Hague was under fire, as if the MPs who had voted for him suddenly woke up to the fact that they had made a terrible mistake. Hague has done all kinds of things to win a few friends—married a pretty blonde who smiles nicely for the cameras, eaten spicy Caribbean food in the street at the Notting Hill Carnival, been seen in public wearing a baseball cap, had a skinhead hair cut. No man could do more. But none of this has done him any good.

While attention has been diverted by these distasteful antics Hague has silkily got rid of most of the leading Tories from the days of Thatcher and Major. Clark and Heseltine more or less deselected themselves and are now standing critics on the issue of Europe. Lilley was sacked after a typically clumsy attempt to discard his past reputation as the scourge of single mothers and benefit claimants. Michael Howard was persuaded that he should spend more time with his prejudices. The only remnants of those former days of power are Redwood and Widdecombe, neither of them completely in touch with the reality of vote winning.

No doubt there are some fascinating reminiscences now burgeoning in the embryo memoirs of the likes of Lilley and Howard. Meanwhile Hague has a Shadow Cabinet whose public presence is—well, shadowy. They are unrecognised, almost anonymous. Hague will have a hard job to convince the working class that these are the leaders who should be trusted to run British capitalism, swamp world markets with British made goods, progressively enrich the British capitalist class while bludgeoning the workers into a docile acceptance of their role as the exploited wealth-producers. In this he will endure for as long as he may be seen as a vote winner. If that changes he will be ruthlessly discarded by this party which likes to boast of its unity and loyalty. If—or perhaps when—that happens it will be his turn to write his memoirs, to complain about an ungrateful party and of how he was, in effect, hoisted with his own petard.


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