Sam Leith Sam Leith

Why the Tory party is breaking apart

I don’t, I freely admit, remember all that much about my chemistry lessons at school. Covalent bonding delighted me not, no, nor moles neither. But I do recall being absolutely thrilled the first time I saw paper chromatography. The idea was – I expect I’m getting this slightly wrong, but don’t write in – that you’d take some murky liquid that was a solution of all sorts of this that and the other, and you’d dab it on a bit of blotting paper, which would then be stood in a basin of some solvent…  

All this splitting, all this factional baring-of-the-differences, seems to me the sign of a party that has gone clean off its rocker

As the solvent soaked up into the blotting paper, it would carry the different substances in the original solution further up the paper with it to different degrees. You’d be able to watch as your original blob smeared out into a rainbow of constituent parts. And if you were good at chemistry, I expect, and could remember what a mole was, you could even identify all these constituent parts. 

We are now recreating the basic thrill of paper chromatography with the Conservative and Unionist party. The great strength of the Tory party has always been its ability to mix a whole range of different inclinations and opinions and tendencies in the interests of getting and maintaining power.

Its Burkeans and its Friedmanites, its imperial preferencers and its free traders, the Thatcherites and the wets, the hoodie-huggers and the bring-back-the-birchers… they have all, when times are good, jostled along just well enough to present a plausibly united front to the electorate. One nation, big tent, broad church: that sort of thing. Not like the fissiparous People’s Front of Judea gang on the other side of the House.    

But now (the solvent being panic at the prospect of going into an election with Keir Starmer – Keir Starmer! – having an unshakeable double-digit poll lead) the whole party is coming out of solution and spreading out into its constituent parts.

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