Nigel Jones

Boris’s Tory assassins have learnt nothing from Thatcher’s downfall

Boris's Tory assassins have learnt nothing from Thatcher's downfall
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John Stuart Mill once dismissed the Tories as ‘the stupid party’. When a reader queried the insult, Mill qualified it, but not by much. ‘I never meant to say that Conservatives are generally stupid,' he wrote. 'I meant that stupid people are generally Conservatives’. More than a century and a half later as the party implodes once again, today’s Tory MPs are still living up to Mill’s derogatory description.

Sitting securely with their huge parliamentary majority, and with at least two years to go before they need to face the voters again, the Tories are going all out to make sure that they lose. In doing so, they are not only condemning the country to a likely Lab/Lib/SNP coalition, but in all probability hastening the breakup of the United Kingdom. What is remotely ‘Conservative’ or sensible about such self-destructive lunacy?

Yet that is the prospect before us as the herd of Tory MPs accelerate their gallop towards the precipice. However bad the character of the Prime Minister, and however damaging his faults and flaws, the manner of his departure has shown the Tories at their collective worst. The act of regicide that they committed this week in taking out the leader who gave them their majority is now compounded by the chaotic aftermath of their botched coup.

A whole posse of MPs are vying to get their snouts ahead of their rivals as the struggle to succeed Boris Johnson intensifies. But with squabbles breaking out over the succession process – who should preside over it; how long should it last; who actually gets to vote, MPs and/or party members – it is becoming clear that the Tories who so eagerly brought Boris down have simply not thought through what happens next.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak, for example, the man who played the same decisive part in eliminating Johnson as Geoffrey Howe did in 1990 in ousting Margaret Thatcher, demanded ‘serious and competent’ government in his resignation letter. But the chaos he has helped unleashed is the very antithesis of those qualities.

The naked ambition shown by Sunak in going after the man who plucked him from obscurity to the summits of power certainly demonstrates the ruthlessness necessary in anyone who aspires to the premiership. But Sunak forgets that such behaviour should always be allied to cunning and caution. As Michael Heseltine could ruefully tell him, he who wields the assassin’s knife often fails to inherit the fallen monarch’s crown.

It is not as if the Boris assassins had no warning in the modern history of their party of where their hastily launched conspiracy would lead. The plot that ousted Thatcher split the party, inflamed the festering divisions over Europe into gaping wounds, and ultimately led the Tories to years in the wilderness and futile impotence as Tony Blair and New Labour transformed Britain.

Nor is Sunak the only Tory to let personal feelings trump political sense. Two aged veterans of the Thatcher coup – Heseltine himself and John Major, the man who did inherit the crown from the PM who has promoted him, only to be rewarded with betrayal – waded into the plots against Boris with undiminished enthusiasm, despite still bearing the scars from their parts in the earlier 20th century Tory civil wars.

Like many members of their generation, Major and Heseltine are starry-eyed Europhiles. Their open disdain of Boris Johnson stems from the part he played in getting Brexit done. That is why Heseltine ludicrously suggested that getting rid of Boris means getting rid of Brexit, and why Major wrote to the 1922 committee advising them to throw Johnson out of Downing Street with no further ado. In both cases, the two elderly gentlemen have shown that age does not necessarily bring wisdom.

Do those Tories who are playing these games give a moment’s thought as to how their little power plays appear in the eyes of the British public who will pass judgement on their frolics in two years’ time? Do the myriad MPs and ministers who resigned and then rejoined the government not see how deeply they are disliked for their irresponsible frivolity?

The behaviour of the Tory party at this moment is not just a bout of midsummer madness, but a symptom of a party too long in office and steeped in behaviour that can only be described in Mill’s word as stupid. Another 19th century political philosopher, Karl Marx, opined that when history repeated itself tragedy was followed by farce. If the misery that followed 1990 is not to be repeated in the coming years, ending with the same conclusion, it is high time to bring the curtain down on this long running Tory farce. Time, in short, for the Tories to get serious about governing or leave the stage to those who can.

Written byNigel Jones

Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.

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