What do the terms right and left mean any longer? These two words have defined political discourse and debate for most of the last century, yet they are becoming increasingly irrelevant as supposedly right wing politicians adopt what have been traditional left wing causes. In a similar manner, in the last 20 years Labour politicians have taken on right wing policy stances on law and order and immigration. David Davis, always seen as a traditional right winger, is Parliament’s leading advocate of civil liberties, while John Reid and various other Labour Home Secretaries took great delight in being further to the right than Michael Howard ever was. Devout Christian Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, is a leading proponent of gay marriage, while lefty Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather opposes it.
Political commentators bandy the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ about with gay abandon without coming to terms with the fact that politics has moved on since 1988. Two things have caused this – the end of Communism and the rise of Blair.
In the Tory Party there are still a few traditional ‘hang ‘em and flog’em’ authoritarian right wingers, but they are a peculiar species, almost threatened with extinction. They generally answer to the name of Chope, Leigh or Howarth. From time to time they emerge from their habitat to squawk abuse but few in the Tory Party take much notice of their predictable views. They certainly made their presence felt in the gay marriage debate, but not in the way they had intended. All they achieved was to persuade MPs like Mark Menzies, who had intended to abstain, to vote in favour. But that is not to take away from the fact that most of us hadn’t seen the so-called rebellion coming. Far more Tory MPs voted against the government that I had imagined. And I won’t pretend that David Cameron hasn’t been weakened by it. But in some ways he only has himself to blame. I fully support the intention of the Bill, but if you actually study the wording of the legislation you cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that it’s a dog’s breakfast of a bill – hurriedly drafted by people who have little understanding of some of the complex issues. All this means that in Committee and further parliamentary stages there are going to be some further bitter debates. The opponents’ dander is well and truly not just up but fully erect!
Aside from the issue of gay marriage there are further distinctions which have to be made between the traditional right, and the modern right. The typical Tory MP from the 2010 intake is dry as dust on economic policy but at the same time as wet as a goldfish on social policy. And it is they who now hold the whip hand in the Tory Party. It is they who are coming up with new policy ideas for the next election. It is their loyalty David Cameron needs to cultivate and rely on.
No serious observer of the Westminster scene believes there is a serious plot to unseat David Cameron. The first priority of any coup plan is to have a King over the water, who is ready and willing to strike. There is no such person. Were Boris Johnson in Parliament that might be different. But he isn’t and won’t be until at least May 2015. There is no way on this earth any current Cabinet Minister could be persuaded to jump ship and lead a plot, and neither Liam Fox or David Davis are that stupid. There may be seven or eight Tory MPs who have sent Graham Brady a letter demanding a leadership vote, and I could probably name them all. None are figures of any influence at all, and most of them are bitter because of lack of preferment.
Cameron’s Number Ten team have always been useless at cultivating backbenchers. Thatcher and Major were far better at it, but it’s as if Number Ten has a deathwish in the way that they appear as if they couldn’t care less what their backbench colleagues think. That must change, but plenty of have been saying it for two years and nothing happens. One Tory MP, elected in 2005, told me recently David Cameron had never exchanged a word with him in the eight years he has been in Parliament. I found that remarkable. The trouble is, I suspect he is not alone.
All parliamentary parties are coalitions of people who agree with each other 85% of the time. It’s how the party leadership handles the other 15% which determines whether they command a happy ship. At the moment Cameron captains a somewhat mutinous ship, but all he needs to do is, in the words of Erasure, show a little respect.
- This article was written for Comment Is Free