Things could scarcely be going better for the Conservatives. Every week seems to bring more news of the recovery. High street tills are ringing, employment is at an all-time high and Britain’s economy is growing faster than that of any major country. No wonder the Labour party’s opinion poll lead has been reduced to one vulnerable point. Two years ago, the Conservatives had almost given up hope of winning the next election. Now, it looks within their grasp — if they keep it together. And therein lies the problem.
Two groups of people are working hard to deny Cameron victory. One is the Labour party high command, which is so far proving ineffective. The other is a band of Tories who are working to sabotage the government in pursuit of their own fantasies. At their heart is a determined group that loathes Cameron and wants him gone — and some of whom have convinced themselves that having Miliband in office is a price worth paying. He’ll be out in five years, runs their lunatic logic, with a more conservative Conservative party elected in 2020. And with a fair wind, Britain will be better by 2025.
What started as principled and purposeful rebellions against Lords reform and military intervention in Syria has descended into childish self-indulgence. Bernard Jenkin’s letter asking for new powers to block legislation from Brussels has its merits. But to ask for it now, via a letter to No. 10 supposedly signed by 95 MPs, is pointlessly destructive. The Prime Minister has already promised a referendum on EU membership within four years, and a ‘no’ vote would end these regulations. To send such letters now, in the last 13 months of this Parliament, serves only one purpose: to suggest that once again the Tory party is at war with itself.
This week’s Immigration Bill gives another example of pointless rebellion. The Bill toughens up the current law a little, but that wasn’t good enough for the rebels. They decided to introduce a hopeless amendment: retrospective controls on Romanian and Bulgarian newcomers. This particular battle was lost several years ago and to re-enact it now is worse than futile. It makes the Tories look naive to the point of idiocy: unwilling to understand or accept what it is to govern. The quality of many rebel proposals is disgraceful. The alternative Queen’s speech put forward by Peter Bone, including ideas such as a Thatcher memorial day, would have embarrassed a university Conservative association.
Any Tory who believes that economic recovery is a licence for self-indulgence should remember the 1997 election. The British economy was then, as now, staging a remarkable recovery — but the message heard by the public was of Tory sleaze and infighting over Europe. The lesson of 1997 is that an economic recovery does not speak for itself.
Voters expect unity from a party, quite rightly. If it cannot govern itself, why should it be entrusted with a country? In his memoirs, John Major wrote of the ‘bickering, squabbling and backstabbing’ that ‘afflicted Conservatism almost like a death wish’. Apparently it never really went away.
The squabbles have not, so far, caught the public’s attention but if Jenkin, Bone and company continue in this vein, the idea of the Tories as divided will become a regular theme in the media. Perhaps some rebels feel they can’t back down now, especially if they fear a Ukip challenge in their constituency, but they must know they have become repetitive and tedious on the subject of Europe.
It’s not just the rebels who are to blame. MPs are not without self-regard, and if David Cameron had shown the slightest interest in his backbenchers or seemed to value their opinion at all, there might have been no rebellion. Even now he can’t bring himself to listen to them. His lieutenants think they can buy off dissenters with tiny concessions — but this, of course, just encourages them. The Immigration Bill was itself an attempt to assuage those Tory rebels furious at losing out to Ukip in the Eastleigh by-election.
There’ll be more fury to assuage in the run-up to the European elections in May, when Ukip will in all likelihood come first and the Tories third. Some angry rebels may even revive fantasies of installing Boris Johnson before the general election. The Mayor of London would be the first to express incredulity at such plans. He has no truck with his party’s capacity for pointless self-destruction. The Maastricht rebels who tormented the Major government at least had a purpose: they were trying to stop something. Today’s rebels just want to add exclamation marks to policy already in place.
But 2015 is not 1997: a Tory defeat is not inevitable and the stakes are far higher now. Blair’s government was socialism lite; Miliband’s Labour is the real thing. He proposes 52 per cent tax rates and wants to govern by issuing edicts to companies. He wants to inflict on Britain the agenda that François Hollande has visited on France. Is this what the rebels want?
For everything there is a season. There is a right time for honest Conservatives to rebel — especially when the Prime Minister is being forced down the wrong route by his coalition partner. But there is also a time to rally behind a leader and his agenda, for the sake of the country. It should be clear to all but the most purblind Conservative MP that that time has come.