The Daily Smackdown: Toby Young’s Misguided Invitation To Dan Hodges

Dan Hodges - Labour Party - Defect to Conservative Party

Not so fast, Toby Young. Dan Hodges is an honourable man, but he has no place in the party of Margaret Thatcher

It wasn’t the first time and it probably will not be the last, so understandably you may have paid little attention when Dan Hodges quit the Labour Party this week in disgust at the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the behaviour of his supporters.

Hodges departed again this week, firing this parting shot:

I’m done. Yesterday I cancelled my direct debit to the Labour Party. “Why don’t you just sod off and join the Tories”, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters regularly ask anyone who dares to challenge their rancid world view.

I won’t be joining the Tories. But I am sodding off.

Fair enough. Dan Hodges has legitimate, irreconcilable differences with Jeremy Corbyn – both his policies and the way in which he runs the party (though Hodges’ sudden sensitivity to supposed bullying from the Corbynites seems a little odd coming from someone who was only too happy to get scrappy in his past life as a political campaign manager).

But clearly Dan Hodges and Jeremy Corbyn have very different visions of what the Labour Party should be, and nobody should fault Hodges’ decision to quit. I made the conscious choice not to re-join the Conservative Party when I returned to Britain in 2011, out of disgust with the centrist course plotted by David Cameron and an unwillingness to associate myself with the record of the coalition government, and so I’m certainly not preaching any kind of “stand by your man” dogma.

And now, inevitably, the offers to Dan Hodges to come join the Conservative Party are coming rolling in. At first, these were mostly coming from mocking Corbynistas on social media, rejoicing that a turncoat “Red Tory” like Hodges had finally gone (again). But then the mocking from the far left was replaced by more earnest offers from the supposed political Right.

Foremost of these offers came from Toby Young, Hodges’ colleague at the Telegraph, who wrote an open letter attempting to woo the ex-Labour columnist into the Tory fold. This letter is well-meant, but utterly misguided and counterproductive, as we shall see.

Toby Young begins:

On all the biggest political issues facing our country – what to do about the Islamic State, tackling the deficit, the renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent, education reform – you and the other Labour moderates are far closer to the leadership of my party than to Labour’s. I think that’s even true of the NHS, given that the health budget has increased in real terms year-on-year since David Cameron became Prime Minister. The commitment to increase spending on the NHS even further in the Autumn Statement surpasses anything promised by your party. And, as I’m sure you know, the minimum wage is set to rise faster under this government than it would have done under Ed Miliband, assuming he’d stuck to Labour’s manifesto.

And it’s true – Dan Hodges does hold refreshingly realistic perspectives on tackling ISIS in Syria, the deficit and Trident. When it comes to fundamental issues of national security, as all of these are, people from the Left and Right are often united.

More worryingly though, when it comes to trampling civil liberties in pursuit of an unattainable degree of security, both he and Theresa May are on the same page. And if Dan Hodges actually believes that throwing more money at a fundamentally broken and outdated NHS model is a good thing, then there is great crossover potential there, too. I’m just not sure that this is a good thing, as Toby Young seems to believe.

Young continues:

Indeed, on all the most important aspects of Osborne’s economic policy, the Labour moderates are much more closely aligned with us than you are with John McDonnell, not least because it’s virtually indistinguishable from the policy set out by Alastair Darling. In this respect, as in so many others, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are the heirs to Blair.

Toby Young clearly meant this to be a bright and positive pitch to Dan Hodges to jump ship. But by hammering home the similarities between George Osborne and Alastair Darling and their remarkably similar (in practice if not in rhetoric) approaches to deficit reduction, all he manages to do is reveal just what a weak and ineffectual supposedly conservative government we currently have – Blairites with a patrician Tory façade.

Young concludes:

If your only hope of improving the lot of the least well-off is to persuade the Conservative Party to be more compassionate, then shouldn’t you do exactly what you’ve been urging the leadership of your own party to do? Say to hell with ideological purity and strike a bargain?

[..] I also think that, in time, many people on my side will come to see the value of a Blairite faction within the Conservative Party. Some of us are already worried about the corrosive effect that a lack of serious opposition will have on the government and would welcome a proper challenge. If that’s not going to be provided by Labour, then it must come from within our own ranks. Those of us who style ourselves “modernisers” will regard you as natural allies. In my mind’s eye, I can already see Lord Finkelstein standing at the other end of the welcome matt, bottle of champagne in hand.

So come on over, Dan. You already have many friends in the Tory party,including the Prime Minister, and I’m sure you’d quickly make many more. I think we’d be lucky to have you.

Unfortunately, in his rash invitation to Dan Hodges, Toby Young is falling into the same trap as David Cameron’s woolly “One Nation” model. Sure, it may be possible for the Tories to eke out a couple more narrow election victories by becoming so blandly inoffensive and unrecognisable that a sufficient number of the most bovine voters grunt their approval. But these narrow victories, like David Cameron’s “miracle majority” of twelve, provide a mandate only for the dull, technocratic management of Britain’s public services. Essentially they elect a Comptroller of Public Services – someone to kick when the trains don’t run on time or NHS waiting times get too long – not a world leader.

Convincing majorities – margins of the sort that allow radical changes to the country like realigning foreign policy, rolling back the remaining vestiges of the post-war settlement and delivering a smaller, more effective state – don’t come from pretending to be sufficiently like the Labour Party that it tricks a few wavering voters into switching sides. They come from articulating a vision so clear, so exciting and so blazingly inspirational that people vote as enthusiastic citizens inspired by the message, not self-interested consumers voting based on fear or greed.

A Conservative Party that is tame and toothless enough to accommodate someone like Dan Hodges would by definition be of the former type, not the latter. The mere fact that Toby Young is able to make his offer with a straight face proves that there is not currently a cigarette paper’s worth of difference between Blairite Labour-in-exile and the Cameron Conservatives, a party which enthused the electorate with their vision so much that they are perpetually just six defections away from defeat in the House of Commons.

In 1968, over a decade before she became prime minister, Margaret Thatcher warned in a speech:

There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.

[..]

No great party can survive except on the basis of firm beliefs about what it wants to do. It is not enough to have reluctant support. We want people’s enthusiasm as well.

Many supposed conservatives and Tory party members seem to have forgotten that lesson – the essential truth which delivered three terms of a Thatcher premiership, saving this country from seemingly inevitable decline and irrelevancy. David Cameron and George Osborne, both old enough to reap the fruits of Thatcherism without having really understood why it was so necessary, seem never to have absorbed this lesson in the first place.

Announcing the defection of Dan Hodges to the Conservative Party – having David Cameron welcome him at the door of Number 10 Downing Street with a big bottle of champagne and a basket of pears – would be the ultimate triumph of One Nationism. It would complete the transformation of the Conservative Party, underway since Thatcher left office, from a party of some ideological coherence to a well-oiled and finely calibrated PR machine, excelling in being all things to all people. An intelligent but soulless hive mind of people who quite fancy being in power, and who are content to say anything or compromise on any conviction in order to keep it. Thus, David Cameron will go down in history as the twenty-first century version of Ted Heath.

I don’t think that this is good enough. A Conservative Party sufficiently bland and uncontroversial that it might appeal to Dan Hodges, even on his most jaded day, is not one which I could bring myself to vote for at the ballot box. It’s not good enough for me. But way more important than that, it’s not good enough for Britain. This country is crying out for real leadership, a renewed sense of national purpose, and the re-imagining of the state and its role in our lives. Monolithic institutions like the broken welfare state and “our NHS” (genuflect) – fraying anachronisms from the post-war consensus – need to be redesigned from the ground up, with their blind apologists and vested interests dragged kicking and screaming into the new century.

But if Dan Hodges is walking around with a Conservative Party membership card in his wallet by the time 2020 rolls around, it’s all over. None of this essential conservative reform will happen. Not because Hodges is in any way a bad person, but because he is Labour to his core – and a Conservative Party which provides a political home for him is quite simply no longer a conservative party at all. They will defeat Labour and win a third term, sure. But their voter coalition will be so broad and so lacking in common aspiration that they will be even more rudderless and scattershot in government than they are today.

I’m almost certain that I know who Toby Young would pick if he was forced to choose, but I’m going to make the ultimatum anyway, because I care deeply about the Conservative Party too, and I am deadly serious about this.

Toby Young: It’s Dan Hodges or me.

Toby Young - Dan Hodges - Defect to Conservative Party

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