I don’t believe that before last week I’ve ever quit any organisation on an issue of principle. I tend to find people tiresome who make a song and dance about doing so. I never thought that one day I’d be ‘making an exhibition of myself’ (as my father used to say) and certainly not so late in my life.
But in my Times column on Saturday that’s what I did. And it’s futile to deny I was attention-seeking. Of course I was. A columnist earns his bread by drawing attention to himself and his opinions. Quitting the party you joined 50 years ago is just a rather theatrical way of doing that.
But I haven’t enjoyed the attention much. A sadness has hung over me since: the sadness, really, of parting from an old friend. The Conservative party owes me a little, I suppose, for doing my best to make the Tory case over 30-odd years in journalism, speaking at endless fundraising dinners for scores of party colleagues old and new, delivering leaflets and canvassing for friends, and mediating a dozen or more parliamentary candidate selections… but it owes me almost nothing for my seven years as a Conservative MP: years in which I made no impact beyond working hard for my constituency of West Derbyshire.
I, on the other hand, owe the Conservative party almost everything. My whole career, including decades in print journalism and broadcasting, would never have taken off without parliament as a launchpad; and the West Derbyshire Tories took a generous gamble in selecting me, a complete unknown, as their candidate more than 40 years ago.
So to the sadness of parting from an old friend who has sheltered and promoted me, and whom I’ve tried to defend, is added a vague worry lest I’ve behaved like a bit of a heel. I comfort myself that the party’s treatment of good Conservatives like Kenneth Clarke, Philip Hammond, Oliver Letwin or Nicholas Soames has been so disgusting that it ought to nullify any residual sense of obligation among the rest of us.
But still I can’t shake off the sadness. Perhaps it’s just the breaking of a long habit that hurts and unsettles, but it does.
I feel a bit prickly, therefore, about criticism. Bucketloads of abuse from (mostly) uncouth Brexiteers have troubled me not at all. I see these bilious good-riddances (often coupled with more personal remarks) as supporting evidence for my growing conviction that the party’s whole personality is changing, and shrug them off with a smile.
But besides thousands of messages of support or fellow feeling from people I know and people I don’t, I’ve also had a fair few more or less gentle, often sorrowful, messages from good friends or wellwishers who wonder politely if I’ve done the right thing. They fall into two distinct categories, making two general criticisms.
The first I can answer confidently. This (among my critics) takes the form of an irritable rejection of the Liberal Democrats, for whom I wrote that I would vote at the next election. They surely cannot be seen (my critics say) as serious contenders for government, or as possessing any serious philosophy for government.
With this I entirely agree, and share the irritability.
I’m most emphatically not joining that party. Not many weeks ago, my column on this page proposed the outlines of a sharp divide between Lib-Demery and liberal conservatism. I hold to that. Of course there have always been admirable people in the Liberal, and, latterly, Liberal Democrat party: admirable people, and some excellent ideas, civilised instincts and humane responses. I admired Nick Clegg, liked Vince Cable’s dry and unsparing rationality, and can see Jo Swinson as a capable and sensible politician. They are, at least, not mad. But the party’s ‘something must be done’ attitude to social needs and problems, its reflexive preference for statist solutions, and its modern reluctance to acknowledge the importance of moral hazard in private life and public policy, creates (for conservatives and freedom--lovers) a hole in Lib Dem political philosophy. I’m also opposed to reversing the result of the 2016 referendum except through a fresh referendum; but there’s no chance the Lib Dems will get the chance to revoke without another plebiscite.
All I advocated in the Times was voting for them as a means of checking the advance of an increasingly brutish and populist Tory party; and — let’s make no bones about this — trying to stop a Brexit that will diminish us all. But I still hope there will one day emerge a liberal conservative party that could attract the millions of 21st-century conservatives who think like me.
For the second (polite) criticism I’m hearing, there’s no honest knockdown rebuttal. It is that one should fight on rather than forsake one’s influence as a member.
‘Stay and fight.’ In any number of cases throughout history this proved the right advice. In any number of other cases it has proved the wrong advice. Certainly it has always deserved careful consideration. Do we advise indignant Jewish members of the Labour party to stay and fight, or walk away? Should convinced Labour Brexiteers stay, or switch to the Tories or Brexit party? These are never easy questions. To answer them requires a judgment to be made: what are the chances of winning this battle? Or are we just spitting into a strengthening wind?
One must estimate the likelihoods. My gently critical friends, most of them loyal Conservatives, suggest (variously) that Boris Johnson himself is no right-wing Brexiteer ideologue, and if he wins big he will be able to curb the zealotry on whose back he has risen; or that in time he will fail and be overthrown and replaced by a moderate, centrist leader. So hang on (they say): there’s everything still to fight for.
In good faith they have made their judgment, and in good faith I have made mine. Mine is that all is lost. I may very well be wrong. I hope so.