Monday, March 21, 2016
The blind fury of the Euro-sceptic Tories
Iain Duncan Smith was not one of those ministers we heard serial encomiums about when he was actually in office. A former backbench rebel against John Major, he was thrust unprepared into the leadership of the Tory party, from which role he was ignominiously ousted by his fellow MPs a couple of years later. He is now, of course, the best Work and Pensions Secretary we've ever had, a reformer of remarkable quality who has sacrificed his career in order to warn the Tory party of the dangers it faces under its current evil, election winning leader.
Mr. Duncan Smith's past and present are useful fables on the wider problem of the Conservative party as a whole. He was elected as a leader in what became a two-way contest against Kenneth Clarke. Clarke was by far the most experienced of the two, as well as having a popularity in the world outside the Tory party. He may have been a consummate politician, but he also had character and an appeal as a "regular" guy who spoke sense in politics. He was, however, a pro-European and this proved toxic in his various leadership bids, including the one against Mr. Duncan Smith. The Tories showed that they preferred an unknown, untried serial rebel to allowing a Europhile anywhere near the leadership, and much good did it do them. Within two years IDS had become such a liability as an opposition leader that he was gracelessly ejected by his own parliamentary colleagues.
As leader IDS had proved a poor speaker and a poor tactician. He failed to fulfill the function of an Opposition Leader when it came to the Iraq war, which he supported (and which Clarke opposed) and found it difficult to identify any strategic vision to help the Tories overcome their trenchant unpopularity. He was succeeded by the more experienced Michael Howard, who went on to show that an initially poor public profile didn't need to be a handicap for an accomplished and intelligent political operator. Howard stabilised the Tories and while he didn't win the 2005 election in the UK, he shored up his party's position and won the most votes in the populous but electorally under-represented England.
It was Howard who mentored David Cameron, his successor as leader who went on to bring the Tories back into government in coalition in 2010 and on their own in 2015. Cameron is thus the most electorally successful Tory leader since Thatcher, and has proved a less divisive figure nationally. He is also a pragmatist and has most recently, of course, come out as a pro-European, leading the Remain camp in a referendum that had only one political aim, which was to try and appease the Euro-sceptics in his ranks.
To hear the wild stories now circulating, and provoked by the resignation of Mr. Duncan Smith, is to see again the full lunacy of the Tory Euro-sceptic right. There is talk of backbench rebellions whatever the outcome of the referendum, a desire to see the back of Mr. Cameron, serious allegations against his dictatorial leadership style and even condemnations of just how closely he and his Chancellor work together. Nearly all of these criticisms lack merit. Cameron's "dictatorial" leadership style is nowhere near as domineering as the late, sainted Margaret Thatcher, while his closeness to George Osborne has delivered remarkably harmonious government. This has been in stark contrast to the thirteen year trauma of the Blair-Brown years.
None of this matters to the Euro-sceptics though. As their hysterical interventions in the current referendum campaign indicate, there is no fury equivalent to that of the Tory Euro hater against anyone who suggests there might be another side to the European debate. Mr. Duncan Smith himself was the author of one of these polemics recently, railing against the fact that the Remainers were, er, putting their case.
The Tory sceptics will never accept a referendum vote to stay in the EU and they will continue to push the self-destruct button in their own party long after the referendum is past. Much of their campaign at the moment is dedicated to the idea that Remainers are somehow cheating in the debate. This includes the notion that the Prime Minister himself shouldn't really be campaigning at all and that Downing Street should stay above the fray. The Outers are worried that they will lose and are setting up the next stage of the campaign. For there will be a next stage. As in Scotland, the referendum won't end the debate and it won't silence the sceptics. If they lose they will seek the first opportunity to oust the most successful Tory leader in decades and neuter as many of his supporters as they can. Like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the Labour party, they will have the majority of the Tory grassroots with them and it will be this populist endorsement that powers their attempt to re-take control of the leadership of the Tory party.
Mr. Duncan Smith is an unlikely political martyr, but the sound and fury accompanying his self-imposed departure from government has far less to do with the issue at hand than he might protest. He may indeed be passionately committed to the social welfare reform he feels has been undermined by Mr. Osborne and the rest of the government. But his resignation storm is not about that. It is about the undying hatred of the Euro-sceptics towards a successful leader who refuses to share their views on Europe, and might even take those views to a substantial public endorsement in June. But that won't matter. The right have already shown they prefer purity in opposition to electoral success that depends on compromise. It was what propelled them to choose Mr. Duncan Smith as their leader back in 2001, and it's why they are so vociferously using his resignation now as a wedge against their current leader. Mr. Duncan Smith proved a useful fool when they adopted him in the leadership contest before and is alas proving so again now. Such is the madness of the modern Tory party.