Reviews of The Right to Rule: Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories by Ben Riley-Smith and The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson by Nadine Dorries.
To Waterstone’s. I decide to have a surreptitious flip-through of Ben Riley-Smith’s new history of the British Conservative Party in the 2010s: The Right To Rule. We get into trouble right from the jump. Riley-Smith chooses to refer to the Duke of Portland, who served as titular Prime Minister intermittently in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, as a ‘Tory’. The man himself would’ve bristled. In those days, everyone in public life would have called themselves a good Whig – allied both to the revolution of 1688 and to the Brunswick succession of 1715. It was William III that the arch-loyalist Lord Eldon toasted, not Henry IX. There isn’t any thread, organisational or otherwise, that connects Pitt the Younger or the Duke of Wellington with the marginal Tory rump of Bolingbroke’s day.
It’s more than a quibble. It’s part of a kind of folk history, in which a perennial Tory Party stretching all the way back to the 17th Century wages a perennial rear-guard action in defence of an English ancien regime. It’s an attempt to give a spurious coherence to the modern-day thing, which has always been proudly mutable.
Spurious it is. In 2023 the Conservative Party barely exists as an organised political faction. Over the last 13 years, the Conservatives have – let’s not forget – split three times. The first was the departure of several MPs, MEPS and half the party’s voter base to UKIP. Had an election been held in spring 2019 the Brexit Party – UKIP’s spiritual successor – would have displaced the Conservatives as the main formation of the British Right. The second split was to the Independent Group, and the third was the purging of 21 Remain MPs – a little over 6% of the parliamentary party. Shortly before the referendum of 2016, David Cameron and George Osborne drew up plans to purge the entire Right of the party, reconstituting it as a purely centrist force. Nigel Farage now breezes into the Party’s conferences and high command is powerless to stop him. Although the Party is in far less dire straits than Labour on the eve of the election of 2019, its members flee Parliament with much greater alacrity. Leading lights of the British Right increasingly do not bother to cultivate a faction within the party and instead build a personal following outside parliament. Lee Anderson and Jacob Rees-Mogg forced their way into ministerial careers with meme status. Boris Johnson, famously, maintained an Olympian distance from Westminster, preferring to take himself straight to the people on their TV sets. The current faction of Boris Ultras in parliament are the consequence of this power, not the cause. Over the past 13 years, Tories have spoken blithely about the total dissolution of their party in a way that Labour – always a family – never would.
Increasingly, the British Conservative Party is defined only by a series of journalistic tropes. The Right To Rule trades lavishly in these. “An absolute monarchy, tempered by regicide”; “The natural party of government”; “The men in grey suits”; “The ruthless pursuit of power” – these are all dutifully invoked by Riley-Smith.
These tropes have now come to life. The parliamentary Conservative Party derives what remains of its esprit de corps from them and tries hard to live up to the billing. The result is a strange kind of burlesque. MPs and ministers affect ruthlessness and an amiable cynicism. Journalists are bombarded with texts sedulously drawn up in The Thick Of It style: “Everything’s fucking fucked!” As a minister, Liz Truss turned secret briefings into a fine art, even to the disadvantage of her own career. There are constant sniggering references to House of Cards. Everyone is always “on manoeuvres”, which soon fizzle out. The Men in Grey Suits of the 1922 Committee, too, play their part – shown by the studied abstruseness of Graham Brady.
I’m not invited to any of these parties, but so far as I can tell all these showy intrigues and picaresques add up to very little. On the inside, it all seems to boil down to a series of low bum-slap antics: dull, unpleasant, and naff in equal measure – like a game of Cards Against Humanity. The real Regency roues of the Duke of Portland’s day would have only been annoyed by boring creeps like Crispin Blunt or Chris Pincher – apparently the social lions of the party throughout the 2010s.
Nor does this recreational scheming add up to anything politically. I have none of the insider knowledge needed to assess Nadine Dorries’s claims of a hidden Movement manipulating British politics from the shadows, but it is easy to see that the Movement is little match for the courts, the civil service, or even the Ministerial Code – all of which have become visible factors in politics over this period. Supposed ruthlessness and cynicism in the pursuit of power do not seem to have spared the parliamentary party from the steady winching-up of investigations, expulsions, and arrests. Smoke-filled rooms in CCHQ, plots, briefings, the black books of the party whips – all this can be instantly knocked over by the stiff, swinging arm of Sue Gray.
Insofar as there is any real coherence to “13 years of Tory Government” – another recent journalists’ coinage, which ignores the five years in which the Conservatives were in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – then it is the persistence of this basic conflict. In the 2010s and ’20s, what the Conservative Party has primarily had to grapple with is New Labour’s constitutional settlement. The question of where sovereignty truly resides in Britain caused each of the party’s splits in the 2010s; if it splits again anytime soon, membership of the ECHR will have been the wedge. The constitutional settlement has, in any event, made much of the party’s legislative agenda illegal. So, what to do? In answering this question, the Party has, again, never acted as anything like a coherent political faction. The history of the Conservative Party in the 2010s has been a succession of small personalist factions, such as Team May, Boris-Gove-Cummings, and Cameron-Osborne – each of whom have commandeered it for wildly divergent ends. To find this much variance in a parliamentary grouping, you have to go back to the era before the emergence of modern political parties. Each of these factions grappled with this constitutional settlement in their own way, and each was eventually unmade by it. To date, the only successful attempt to bring governance back under civilian control occurred in 2019, with a policy of demagoguery against this settlement. One might wonder why a party that is ostensibly ruthless in the pursuit of power is so unwilling to repeat the trick, and, with the appointment of a curious ‘Baron’s cabinet’ earlier this month, seems to have given up on the issue entirely.
But it isn’t a question that can be adjourned forever. As the past year has shown, Britain’s extended Civil Service is willing to use its full complement of legal instruments against someone as meek and mild as Rishi Sunak. It refuses all offers of surrender. As prime minister, Keir Starmer will intensify this; as others have noted, all of his political success thus far has been achieved by purging and arraigning his opponents – and he is too old to learn a new trick. The keystone to his plans will be to rig the constitution anew. If this is allowed to go off without a hitch, then the world that Riley-Smith describes, of the whips, the boozy briefings, the Red Lion, the smirks, the backroom plots – all this will come to an abrupt and muffled end.