Alex Massie

The collective nervous breakdown of the Conservative party

The collective nervous breakdown of the Conservative party
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A week after the Labour party conference made the best available case for Theresa May’s government, it is the Conservative’s turn to persuade the country that a Labour government, compared to the alternatives available, might not be such a complete disaster after all. Such is the way of party conferences these days.

And it cannot be said that the Conservative gathering in Birmingham has got off to a great start. Indeed, all the signs are that this is a party experiencing a nervous breakdown. It looks at the Labour party - a party which, tellingly, welcomed back Derek Hatton last week - and wonders why on earth it isn’t pummelling the hell out of these Trots and Sparts. Something, somewhere, has gone very badly wrong.

The answer, as so often, lies within. This is not the Tory party of old, that much is clear. Unfortunately it is not the Tory party of the future, either. The party has sacrificed its reputation for soundness and cheerfully embraced radicalism. Chris Grayling - Chris bloody Grayling! - has, as I type this, just declared 'We need revolution'. Voters may feel like responding, ‘Not with you in the driver’s seat chum’.

Sometimes, you wonder who writes the speeches ministers give at these events. The evidence available suggests that no-one with any nous does so. For instance, Grayling has just told the conference that this time last year he had been in Manchester 'where I met the first flight bringing passengers back after the collapse of Monarch Airlines.' In the days after this, 'we brought back nearly 100,000 people' he boasted - truly, a sun-kissed Dunkirk of the skies - and although 'the loss of Monarch was a sad day' it is important to note that 'our aviation sector continues to thrive'.

Be of good cheer, because this is a metaphor for Brexit: 'I am proud to live in a country where our industries and our businesses instinctively know how to adapt and grow following changes. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what will happen to this country after Brexit, regardless of the outcome of negotiations.'

So there you have it: there will be a disaster but then we will recover. With salesmen for Brexit like this, who needs sceptics?

But Grayling, whose record of consistent failure in every department he has touched would be impressive if it were not so dispiriting, is hardly alone. Even normally sage observers such as Paul Goodman, the former MP and now editor of ConservativeHome, suggest that, necessity being the mother of virtue and all that, this conference should be a 'festival of creative destruction'.

Well, maybe. I am not in Birmingham just yet - sensibly, I am restricting my attendance at the conference to a single day - but it seems to me that, perhaps unsurprisingly, this entire affair is misjudging the mood of the country. OPPORTUNITY is the slogan at a time when REASSURANCE might be more apt. That was Theresa May’s initial pitch to Britain and the one that suited her best. Time passes and circumstances change, of course, but much of Britain does not see Brexit as a great liberating moment for really getting down to business and setting us all free.

The Tory party might be able to talk about the prospects for a brighter post-Brexit future but only if it first decides on what Brexit is supposed to mean and what kind of deal would be a good one. Until that happens, all this OPPORTUNITY talk falls flat and will, in any case, be understood by voters to really mean UNCERTAINTY with knobs on.

At present the Tory party is having the kinds of discussions better suited to a party of opposition, not one in government. What is it for? Who, just as pertinently, is it for? What, in point of ticklish fact, does it actually want to achieve? That reflects the fact that the party has been in power for eight years and, consequently, even without Brexit would need to reinvent and repurpose itself. That is never an easy task. After eight years in power, voters can be forgiven for thinking, in the name of compassion and to prevent future suffering, it's time to take the government to the vet for the very last time.

Above all, the party continues to misread Brexit. Priti Patel says 'we’ve got to walk the talk' and 'actually deliver Brexit.' Maybe so. Brexit was born of many parents but plenty of Tory MPs appear to assume that their devotional enthusiasm for leaving the EU is actually shared by the people who voted to Leave.

Many of those 17 million Leave voters certainly do think Brexit must mean Brexit; plenty of others, however, are not at all concerned by the intricacies of Leave meaning Leave. Their votes were not so much cast in favour of Brexit as against the prevailing mood. These votes were cast against the government, the establishment, the system, the whole rotten, stinking, unfairness of it all. We have had it up to here, these votes cried, and we’re fed-up with taking it again and again. You gave us an opportunity to protest so protest we will. It was not, for the love of god, a demand that Sunderland be transformed into the Singapore of the west.

Then again, Brexit is driving even moderate ministers potty. Jeremy Hunt is no-one’s idea of a revolutionary leader (this is one of his strengths) but even he has been infected by the conference-imposed demand to make a fool of himself. Time and time again, government ministers speak as though they believe no-one outside the hall can hear them.

I suppose the foreign secretary thought he was impressing Tory activists and his MP colleagues when he said 'The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,' but instead he simply came across as asinine and insulting. Asinine because no-one is stopping the UK from leaving the EU; insulting because those former Warsaw Pact countries that are now members of the EU rightly reject the idiocy of Hunt’s analogy. When Hunt says 'If you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble, we fight' he does rather forget the manner in which Britain chose to put itself in a corner.

Ah well, fair enough, I suppose. ‘Nobody puts Britain in the corner’ is the Dirty Brexit companion to the Brexiteers’ Father Dougal view of the world: Britain is large but Europe, being far away, is small.

Nevertheless, indulging this EUSSR nonsense is a further indicator, if it were needed, that the Tory party has absorbed Ukip and, more importantly, the spirit of Ukip. When even Jeremy Hunt goes the full kipper, you know the game is a bogey.

But that is where we are this week. A government that is in office but not in power; that seeks the answers to questions vanishingly few people are asking and then looks for them in precisely the wrong place anyway. A government that is vaguely acceptable only because the opposition is equally intolerable and a governing party that has exhausted all reserves of goodwill partly because it has misjudged the mood of the country. Apart from that, everything is going very well indeed.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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