“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Within living memory there was once a Conservative Party. It was led by men who had received their M.C. (Eden, Macmillan) and a woman-warrior Brunhild out of Wagner, Margaret Thatcher.
Aristocrats, not ermined placemen, were notable in the Party; I once heard the Marquess of Salisbury address a conference with the words “Do you” as an imperative, language I have never encountered since. The Young Conservatives were the finest dating agency in the land, from which sprang many even younger Conservatives. That Party had an identity, a solidity, a historic record of Government unsurpassed in Europe. People, even their enemies, believed in the Conservatives.
Today that Party in Parliament is a mutinous, discontented rabble. The Conservatives are still strong in the Associations, but despair of their M.P.s. Theresa May’s adamant refusal to admit reality into her discourse borders on the pathological, but on Monday she gave in to the Commons and pulled the impending vote on her Withdrawal Agreement from the EU. This, after four days of debate. Even the Speaker raged at this “deeply discourteous” behaviour. The Commons had lined up a huge defeat for the Prime Minister, which being seen, the Prime Minister avoided her fate by putting it off. Then she went to Brussels and Berlin, pleading for help. She would do well to avoid saying that she comes back bearing agreement with honor. It is the Arab tale of the Appointment in Samarra; wherever she goes out of Damascus, the same fate is waiting for her at the end of the day.
How has this come to pass? The Conservative Party in Parliament is still Europhile and Remainer, notwithstanding the referendum decision for Leave. Yet the needed 48 votes have been mustered for a leadership challenge, at personal risk: the signatories could be marked men who might never be elevated to the peerage, “the sweet fruition of an earthly crown” (“coronet,” then). Patronage works by the duality of promised gain and threatened withholding. It confers not only a title but the bonus of £300 a day for checking in to the Lords. What can be done?
The last best hope is Boris Johnson. If he can get himself elected as Conservative Leader he could turn things round. His talents are unmatchable in British politics. He would face not only the obvious problems, but this primal challenge, well put by Tim Stanley, the Telegraph leader writer:
“This is a point in our history that calls for visionary partisan leadership, not appeals to ‘One Nation,’ because we’re not one nation on this issue and never will be.”
I agree. “One Nation,” core of Theresa May’s belief system, is an ignis fatuus of the mind. The only possible outcome to the Tory Civil War is for the winners to win.
Ralph Berry writes from England.