Peter Oborne

The cult of treachery

The 25 letters are in. Iain Duncan Smith will soon be out. The treachery of the flunkeys has triumphed. Peter Oborne outlines what the new leader must now do to save the party

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For the greater part of the last two centuries it was axiomatic that three great institutions upheld a large part of the structure of our national life. These were the monarchy, the established Church and the Conservative party. In different ways all three were expressions of identical values: loyalty, decency, tolerance, service, respect for tradition. They all taught that the individual matters far less than the whole.

These institutions were, and theoretically remain, wholly antipathetic to individual greed and naked ambition. They are grounded in a homely native empiricism and suspicion of abstract ideas. Any account of why Britain, alone among the great European powers, did not succumb to the murderous ideologies of fascism or communism in the last century is incomplete without an explanation of the role played by these three institutions. The existence of the monarchy meant that Britain already possessed a potent national symbolism; the kind of fascist or communist display that dazzled continental Europe provoked simple bewilderment here. The presence of a robust, indigenous, sceptical conservatism left no room for the extreme Right to break in from the periphery. When war came, the Church and the monarchy helped to provide an unbreakable social glue that bound the British people together in the six-year struggle against Hitler.

The Church, the monarchy and the Tory party have constantly shown an astonishing ability to renew themselves. The Anglican Church was all but moribund in the first two decades of the 19th century, but within a generation it had come back with tremendous force to reoccupy the centre of public life. The British monarchy twice recovered from disquieting calamities, each the product of human frailty. The scandals of the 1820s — as bad as anything alleged today — merely proved in retrospect to be an amusing prelude to the glory of the late Victorian monarchy. The catastrophe of the abdication led almost seamlessly to the creation of a new domestic monarchy by George VI, brought close to perfection in the first half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Likewise, the Conservatives looked finished as a political force in 1846, only to be reinvented by Disraeli. Matters looked worse still in 1906 when the party was demoralised by a Liberal landslide and split in two over tariff reform, with a hopeless front bench wholly overshadowed by Asquith’s brilliant team of ministers. The most luminous figures on the Tory side were an obscure squire named Walter Long and the melancholy Bonar Law. And yet it was the Conservative party dullards who endured to dominate the 20th century, not Asquith’s showy Liberals.

So there are abundant grounds for hope that the Church, the monarchy and the Tory party will each recover their vitality and resume their interrupted role in our national life. Yet matters could hardly be more discouraging. In the past, disasters have struck separately. A strong Church and a confident Tory prime minister combined to pull the monarchy out of a hole in 1936, while the stability of the Crown and the authority of the Church meant that the near disappearance of the Conservatives for a generation after 1846 hardly mattered. The menace of the present situation lies in the unprecedented catastrophe that has overcome all three at once. The symptoms are so severe that it is hard to see what will prevent the emergence of a republican Britain, with no established Church and a rump of half a dozen loosely whipped Tory MPs in the House of Commons, very likely within the next generation.

These simultaneous crises are linked. The three institutions have forgotten their proper roles, and as a consequence their duties to the British people. Instead they have fallen prey to their own narrow and in some cases demeaning preoccupations. The purpose of the Anglican Church is extraordinarily simple: to spread the gospel of Christ. Instead of embarking upon this divine and privileged mission, it looks in upon itself, befuddled by an obscure debate about homosexuality, a subject on which Christ never uttered a word. Likewise the Tory party. For more than ten years it has ceased to take the Conservative message to the country. Instead it has lacerated itself with arguments about Europe and, more recently, an obscurantist spat over Section 28.

One feature of this prolonged period of fruitless self-examination has been a novel phenomenon: the rise of the flunkey. When the monarchy was in good working order, royal servants — think of the boundless discretion of the Queen’s private secretary, Robert Fellowes, almost the last of a heroic tradition — subordinated themselves to the great institution they served. Now the royal flunkey has emerged as a weighty figure in his own right — disastrously so in the case of Paul Burrell and Michael Fawcett, the Prince of Wales’s former manservant. Burrell and Fawcett have their precise equivalents among the researchers and special advisers inside Tory Central Office.

These are simultaneously a symptom and a cause of Conservative enfeeblement, just as the rise to political power of the eunuch and the catamite was a portent of the end of the Roman Empire. This political underclass has been emancipated through the growth of a shrill and pervasive media. Their palace plots, accurately chronicled in Simon Walters’s important work Tory Wars, made it impossible for William Hague to lead an effective opposition, and they played a leading role in the groundwork to the political assassination of Iain Duncan Smith.

The rise of the flunkey is a manifestation of the most disturbing phenomenon of all: the notion that the individual counts for more than the institution that he or she serves. This modern heresy has brought shame and indignity on the royal family. Its junior members have consistently failed to understand the duties that go with high office. The same criticism applies to senior members of the Tory party. It is very striking to compare the loyalty of the Labour party top brass in the turbulent years after electoral disaster in 1979 to the serial treachery of leading Conservatives since 1997.

After 1979, Labour MPs stayed and fought for the party they loved. The classic case was Denis Healey. This brilliant man was repeatedly snubbed by Labour. The party ignored his warnings and set off down a political blind alley. Nevertheless, he stayed loyally on the front bench until the general election of 1987. Even those, like Shirley Williams, who abandoned Labour for the SDP, did so out of passion and commitment. She may have left the Labour party. She did not, like so many Conservatives after 1997, betray politics. The members of John Major’s last government have been scattered by the four winds. Though they have not stood down as MPs, they have busily pursued private gain in business, pausing only to snipe from the sidelines at the luckless Conservative leader.

True politicians have always recognised that opposition is just as important a part of the job as government. The Conservative top brass have relished the spoils of government when in power. In defeat they have abandoned their posts. To an astonishing extent, they have placed private ambitions before service to the party. Michael Portillo’s announcement that he would not serve under another leader, made within hours of his defeat in the 2001 Tory leadership campaign, was an act of treachery not merely to the Conservative party but to the honourable trade of politics itself. Kenneth Clarke made the same wretched decision. For the last six years this prodigiously talented politician has preferred to peddle cigarettes to the poor of the Third World than to serve his party and his country. Michael Howard alone, with nothing to gain by taking on the thankless job of shadow chancellor in his sixties, has shown a proper sense of duty.

It is not certain who will emerge as the new Conservative leader. But Michael Howard, whose restraint compares well with the mutinous disloyalty displayed by the supporters of David Davis, is clear favourite. In the most profound sense, however, the result does not matter. Whoever becomes leader, it is clear enough what he or she needs to do.

The first task is to regain institutional loyalty. It is worth repeating here the names of those who, besides Portillo and Clarke, would not serve under Duncan Smith: Archie Norman, Francis Maude, Ann Widdecombe, William Hague, Gillian Shephard, John Redwood, Nicholas Soames, Andrew Tyrie, Greg Knight, Andrew Mitchell, David Ruffley, Michael Fallon, Andrew Lansley. While some — notably Hague — had legitimate reasons, the majority were acting out of vanity or selfishness. Many withheld their consent from the start while some — Mitchell and Soames are spectacular examples — undermined the leader whenever they could. The outstanding case of disloyalty, however, came from a figure who agreed to serve in the shadow Cabinet. The conduct of Eric Forth, shadow Leader of the Commons, has been disgraceful. Through facial gestures and visual mockery, this close lieutenant of the ambitious David Davis has never shown the Conservative party leader the respect his position deserves. I am told that he has been loudly ridiculing Duncan Smith in the Commons tea room ever since MPs returned from the Blackpool party conference; if that is how he feels he should have resigned from the Tory front bench.

The second task is to put a stop to the cult of the courtier. Too many ambitious Conservatives — above all Michael Portillo, who has been consistently treacherous to three consecutive Tory leaders — have sought to further their career in part through private briefings by flunkeys. Central Office in Smith Square has come to embody this diseased political culture, and should be sold.

The third task is to extend the base of the Conservative front bench. The Conservatives still have the firepower to provide a broad-bottomed opposition. This means bringing back William Hague and finding a role for Ken Clarke and a shadow Cabinet position for several of his allies, notably John Gummer and Stephen Dorrell. Michael Portillo, if he is prepared to depart from long-established practice and be loyal, is an automatic choice. John Major is a wasted resource. He is no longer an MP, and not yet in the Lords, so it is hard to deploy him. He can be brought back on to the board of the party. Senior members of the shadow Cabinet now speculate that he could occupy a newly created post as Conservative party president.

Above all, the Conservatives must start to fight the lie, sold brilliantly by New Labour in opposition, that the party is associated with selfishness and greed. Study of the party’s long and distinguished history shows the reverse to be the case. Paradoxically, New Labour, emphatically not the Tories, has turned out to be the ideal political expression of the narcissistic, materialistic and morally empty post-Thatcher era. The Conservative party’s failure to oppose is a betrayal not merely of its voters but of the British people as a whole. It is time to reclaim the values of loyalty, discipline and respect, or a great institution will vanish for ever. This is the last chance.