What Conservative Government? – Part 3, Tim Montgomerie Edition

David Cameron - Margaret Thatcher - Coke Zero Conservatism

You, sir, are no Margaret Thatcher

Tim Montgomerie has finally had enough. He is embarking down the lonely path of exile trodden by many of us who remain deeply proud to call ourselves conservatives (with a small C), but who feel absolutely no connection, affinity or devotion to the ideologically shapeshifting, centrist machine led by David Cameron. And he is resigning his membership of the Conservative Party.

Montie signs off with this warning in the Times:

The PM will no doubt treat with disdain my resignation like the departure of tens of thousands of once-loyal grassroots members who have already walked away. But one day an opposition party will get its act together or a wholly new party will emerge. At that point there’ll be a realisation that the Tories’ 40-odd per cent in current opinion polls was a mile wide but an inch deep; reflecting disappointment at alternatives rather than allegiance.

And at some point Britain will notice that the Conservatives didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining. That we will head into the next economic downturn with the public finances still in precarious shape, with vital airport runways unbuilt and banks too-big-to-fail as big as ever. And if Mr Cameron gets his way we’ll still be powerless to control immigration from an economically turbulent, declining EU, of which we will be an impotent member.

But why desert the Tory party now that they finally hold a majority administration for the first time since 1997?

Tim’s reasons are exactly what you would expect – the abysmally centrist, soul-deadeningly unambitious agenda which has been set by David Cameron and George Osborne since 2010, and which this blog has been constantly condemning since I began writing back in 2012.

The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and yet the national debt has nearly doubled under George Osborne’s watch, while he struts and crows about his meagre attempts to reduce the annual budget deficit.

The Conservatives – at their best – lift people up out of disadvantaged circumstances and help them to realise their own innate potential, rather than trapping them in a life sentence of government dependency and subsistence. But David Cameron’s government has been half-hearted on housing, on infrastructure, on welfare – kicking the can down the road, and pandering to their wealthy, older, property-owning base at every turn.

The Conservatives are meant to be the party of a strong national defence, but under David Cameron the military has been pared back to the bone, with many essential capabilities (like maritime patrol aircraft) eliminated entirely just when they are needed most, and our aircraft carriers – crucial to maintaining Britain’s status as a world power with expeditionary military capabilities – decommissioned, with their replacement not due to come online until 2018.

The Conservatives are meant to be the party of national sovereignty and of patriotism, and yet in David Cameron we have a prime minister who only glibly and unconvincingly talked the eurosceptic talk, and who is currently perpetrating a fraud on the British people with his cosmetic and entirely irrelevant “renegotiation”.

And one might add (though Tim Montgomerie did not mention this in his resignation letter) that the Conservatives traditionally stood for individual liberty, and the right of the people to go about their lives unmolested and undisturbed by government. But David Cameron’s government – with its creepy “plan for every stage of your life” – is determined that the state involve itself in as much as possible, and has cynically exploited national security concerns to roll back civil liberties and undermine privacy.

But enough of me – I’ll let Montie speak for himself:

Could David Cameron be much more different [than Thatcher]? He promised to bring down immigration but despite Theresa May’s hollow rhetoric, it’s rising. And that defining mission to eliminate the deficit? The Treasury is still borrowing £75 billion a year — a burden on the next generation that would once have shocked and shamed us, and still should. The national debt is up by more than 50 per cent, but this hasn’t seen our armed forces rebuilt. They’ve been cut to the bone.

What about fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Brussels that the PM pledged, promised and vowed to deliver? The 69 per cent who think he got a bad deal are right. The newspapers that called the deal a “joke”, “conjuring trick” and “delusion” weren’t exaggerating. But it took the Fourth Estate rather than Tory MPs to point out the emperor’s naked state. With a few honourable exceptions Conservative parliamentarians were silent when Mr Cameron, pretending to have changed anything that matters, stood at the same dispatch box at which Mrs Thatcher vowed to fight European integration.

This criticism is spot-on. It has been particularly galling in recent weeks to see just how few current Tory MPs – particularly of the newer intakes – have continued to voice the principled euroscepticism which they were only too happy to display while flaunting their wares to their local constituency party selection committees.

The EU referendum is not just another political issue to be legitimately haggled over by MPs who broadly share the same outlook. This isn’t an arcane policy debate or a minor difference of opinion over fiscal policy – it is absolutely fundamental to how Britain will be governed for the next decades and beyond, and the fact that so many Conservative MPs choose loyalty to their chameleon-in-chief over their constituents and their country is profoundly depressing.

Montie goes on to warn that the Conservative Party will not have the fortune of a weak and divided opposition forever – and that the narrow window for effecting real radical conservative reform is being missed:

For the moment Mr Cameron can get away with all of this. Labour moderates are no nearer getting rid of their extremist leader than when he was elected. It will probably take a generation before northern England and Scotland trust the Lib Dems again. And Ukip, although resilient at double figures in most opinion polls, is too Trump-ian to mount a credible challenge for power.

Faced with a weak, divided opposition in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher moved the country forward. She seized the opportunity to deliver tough reforms that a more effective opposition might have stopped. Today, David Cameron and George Osborne are doing little that Blairites or Cleggites could object to. I recently asked Peter Mandelson what separated his politics from that of Mr Osborne. He joked that the top rate of income tax was too high. At least I think he was joking.

This is also true. And Tim Montgomerie rightly acknowledges that there may well be short-term electoral dividends to be won with a doggedly centrist approach. But only if winning elections is all you care about. If you actually want to do something useful and positive with the power you wield, then the Cameron/Osborne approach is nothing short of a disaster.

As I have written many times before on this blog, the unhinged, virtue-signalling British Left are determined to see the current Conservative government as some kind of ideologically extreme, Thatcher-on-steroids, evil and inhumane government, despite the fact that in reality the government is profoundly centrist. Ed Miliband first started allowing this narrative to take hold as he sought to buy breathing space for his party back in 2010, but six years on and the Labour Party are now in the midst of being devoured by the ‘Tory Scum’-roaring beast that they unleashed.

And since anything that conservatives of any stripe now do will automatically and reflexively be painted by the Left as malevolent and evil, there is absolutely no point in trying to curry favour with the centre-left by copying New Labour policy on taxes, wage controls or anything else. Since the hysterical Nazi comparisons are going to come flying at us come what may, we should at least be using this time of limited and disorganised opposition to boldly enact a radical conservative agenda, much as Thatcher did in the mid 1980s. But this is not happening, and Montie’s resignation suggests that he has given up hope of a change in strategy, even after Cameron goes and is (likely) replaced by Osborne.

And who can blame him? I saw the writing on the wall when I moved back from Chicago in 2011, as it became clear that Cameron’s ideological caution was not a function of being in coalition with the LibDems, but was actually his true, authentic self. And so I never rejoined the Conservative Party back then. But if I had, I too would be cutting up my membership card in solidarity with Montgomerie.

I’m currently reading an excellent book – “Thatcher’s Trial”, by Kwasi Kwarteng, the Conservative MP for Spelthorne. The book focuses on the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, specifically the period from March to September 1981 when she had to negotiate a difficult Budget and ultimately reassert her authority with a bold Cabinet reshuffle.

I’m only half way through Kwarteng’s book, but the portrait he paints is a true profile in courage – somebody with firm and unyielding principles, a strong ideological compass, a righteous hatred for consensus politics and the ability to impose her will on her party and her country. In short, Kwarteng is describing everything that David Cameron, Thatcher’s successor, is not.

Back when Jeremy Corbyn was on the cusp of being elected leader of the Labour Party, this blog asked:

If David Cameron’s Conservative Party was voted out of office today, what will future historians and political commentators say about this government fifty years from now? What will be the Cameron / Osborne legacy? What edifices of stone, statute and policy will remain standing as testament to their time in office? Try to picture it clearly.

Are you happy with what you see?

I genuinely don’t know what legacy David Cameron thinks he is building through the course of his rootless premiership. But it is not a legacy with which I wish to be associated in any way.

It has been lonely these past few years, being a conservative without a party at a time when political opponents assume we must be thrilled with David Cameron’s every slick and insincere pronouncement. But at least we now have Tim Montgomerie to keep us company in our solitude.

Now, the first order of business for the inaugural meeting of Conservatives in Exile: how do we get our party back, and save it (and the country) from Cameronism?

 

Britain's PM Cameron arrives to pose for a family photo during an EU leaders summit in Brussels

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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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