Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 1 July 2016

We are now seeing how the Tories prize loyalty above all else

Yesterday's manoeuvrings within the Tory party are some of the most bizarre I have ever witnessed in all my time following politics.

For Michael Gove who had been seen as one of Boris Johnson's key allies and a likely future Chancellor under a Johnson premiership to suddenly abandon his colleague, denounce him and announce he would be standing himself was extraordinary to watch. Then Boris, showman to the end made a speech peppered with references to Julius Caesar's Brutus and where in its denouement he withdrew from the leadership race using the carefully calculated phrase we have seen repeated on all media outlets: " view of the circumstances in parliament that person cannot be me.".*

It is becoming clear that Gove is now himself a busted flush having first brought down David Cameron's premiership (along with Johnson) and then latterly turned on Johnson and brought down his leadership ambitions too. There are lots of Tory MPs shocked by this behaviour and although politics is a dirty business I think there are now simply too many who will not want to be seen to reward this sort of behaviour. It's possible now that Gove doesn't even make it to the final ballot of members. He may even, if reports today are accurate withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind Theresa May who is now the clear front-runner and very likely to be the next Prime Minister.

Nothing is certain but May is 4/11 with Betfair with Gove at 19/2. For the rest of this post I am going to assume that Theresa May will now win.

Because in reality that fits the pattern of almost all the Tory leadership campaigns that I have witnessed as an adult. Right through from the one that followed the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

In 1990 Geoffrey Howe dropped his bombshell as he resigned from Thatcher's cabinet and Michael Heseltine responded to his clarion call that "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long." by challenging Thatcher for the leadership directly. As we all know his bid failed and instead the hitherto ultra-loyal John Major who had rapidly risen through the ranks to have recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer won the crown**. Heseltine was widely seen as having been punished for his disloyalty. This is despite the fact that the majority of Tory MPs knew that Thatcher was finished anyway, they did not want to reward Heseltine for having been the one to actually bring her down.

In 1997 after the Tories lost the general election the subsequent winner was William Hague. He had been very loyal to John Major all throughout his travails in the 1990s and was appointed to the cabinet after John Redwood had quit in 1995 order to challenge Major. He was seen as a trustworthy pair of hands to guide the Conservative Party through a difficult time. Redwood was eliminated in the second ballot, another victim of the Tory Party's dislike of disloyalty.

In 2001 the story was a little bit different and deviated from the norm in that the winner in the end was Iain Duncan Smith who himself had been a serial rebel in the 1990s against John Major's government. Duncan Smith was actually the beneficiary of the fact that he ended up in the final ballot against Ken Clarke who as a Europhile was wildly out of touch with the Tory membership who by now had the final say when the MPs had whittled the field down to two. This aberration however was short lived as the party rapidly realised they had made a mistake selecting Duncan Smith not least because it was very difficult for him to credibly demand loyalty from his parliamentary party after all the times he had failed to do the same thing himself under Major. So in 2003 without even a leadership election the Tories got rid of Duncan Smith through some back-room shenanigans and replaced him with Michael Howard the former Home Secretary who himself had been (publicly) loyal to Major in government thus ending the experiment of allowing a former rebel to lead them.

2005 saw another loyalist David Cameron push through the field to emerge victorious. Cameron in fact is the epitome of a loyal party member having devoted much of his life to working in the engine room of the Tory Party before he became an MP first in Central Office and then as a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Indeed he and George Osborne used to help out prepping John Major for PMQs during the 1990s.

And so to the current leadership contest 11 years on. Given the history of how the Tory party selects its leaders and the disaster that befell it the one time it deviated from this norm and selected someone who was widely seen as disloyal it is looking like once again that rather than the showboating politicians and/or the ones who have been willing to publicly betray the party leadership it will be the quiet, unassuming but publicly loyal Theresa May who will win the ultimate prize.

There is almost certainly a lesson in here for future aspirant Tory leaders. Keep your head down, get on with the job and no matter what you might really think, always, always swear absolute loyalty to your leader.

It's the Tory way.

*As an aside this debacle shows how wrong I was when I wrote the other day that it was most likely to be Boris Johnson who won the leadership. I should have adhered more closely to what history tells us myself! I'll be more careful in future for sure.

**It's worth noting that Major was able to "have his cake and eat it" when it came to Thatcher's nomination for the first round of the leadership ballot. Thatcher's team had wanted Major's signature on her nomination papers as he was Chancellor and that would add weight to her bid. But Major did not sign her papers as at the time he was under anaesthetic having dental surgery. Hence he was able to both profess loyalty and simultaneously not dirty his hands by directly backing her. This contributed to his success in the second round and will perhaps go down as the luckiest dental problem in political history.