The Tories ditch decency along with their values

Published by The ipaper (1st April, 2019)

Dominic Grieve describes himself as ‘a bit of an old-fashioned Conservative’. From his haircut through to his pragmatic approach to politics and quiet Christianity, he would have fitted into the party at almost any point in recent history. Although seen as being on its liberal wing he supported austerity, backed the bedroom tax, voted for benefit cuts, expressed concern on immigration and failed to vote for gay marriage. He was even once seen as something of a Eurosceptic.

Yet such has been the party’s lurch to the right, Grieve suddenly finds himself unpalatable to his own members. After he spent 22 years as MP for Beaconsfield, his local party backed a vote of no confidence against him on Friday night. The move was led by a former Ukip candidate who stood against the former attorney general in the ultra-safe Tory seat at the last election, exposing how nationalists and Little Englanders have flooded into the Conservative fold.

Brutal heckles, insults and accusations of betrayal flew around during an acrimonious two-hour debate. Grieve says the non-binding motion will not change his brave support for a second referendum. Nick Boles, a key moderniser and one of the more thoughtful Tory MPs, recently quit his association in Grantham and Stamford after deselection moves. There are rumours of more bids to oust sensible MPs who care about their country but upset hardliners as Brexit dreams get dashed on the rocks of reality.

Such are the resentments in Tory ranks, fuelled by hardline entryists and encouraged by the boorish Ukip donor Arron Banks, mild-mannered Grieve was even compared to Lord Halifax, who infamously backed appeasement with the Nazis. This is one more sign of the stupidity of holding that divisive Brexit ballot in 2016. Voters can only watch in horror at the failure of a dismal Prime Minister, a deadlocked Parliament and an outdated political system.

Yet note the significance of these two seats. Benjamin Disraeli, father of the modern Conservative Party after it last tore itself in two over trading issues, took the title of Beaconsfield when he went to the Lords after representing Buckinghamshire. And Grantham was the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory leader who took pride in creating the European single market that causes such fury among right-wingers claiming to worship her name.

Grieve’s colleagues from all sides of the party showed support for him on social media. But the insurgencies in these two constituencies with profound historic resonance are significant – and not only since they show such intolerance towards a pair of politicians from different strands of respected conservatism. These small schisms at local level show how – thanks to Brexit – the Tory party is descending into a dark place as it turbocharges the nasty party brand under the premiership of the woman who first identified the problem in public.

Fanatics in places such as Beaconsfield and Grantham reflect the attitudes of their fellow extremists in Parliament who reject the faintest compromise to their blurry vision of Brexit. These are the ultras who destroyed all their own prime ministers since Thatcher, the people who reduced a tormented nation to global ridicule and paralysed Parliament. Already, they have driven out three decent MPs into a new group, while the totemic issue of Islamophobia gets swept aside in their rush to appeal to nativists.

Brexit was the result of a Tory civil war that exploded with dire consequences. It has shifted the party sharply to the right and will shape the outcome of the leadership fight. The field is crowded yet sadly, this crucial contest feels painfully reminiscent of the ‘Twit race’ sketch in Monty Python. Just look at the pathetic way Sajid Javid plays to his gallery by stripping passports from jihadi brides and intensifying stop and search. Or consider the terrifying fact that Boris Johnson, a poundshop Trump whose ambition is only matched by his deviousness and ineptitude, is favourite to become the next Tory prime minister.

Have no doubt this is retoxifying the Tory party. Brexit shattered attempts to make the party appealing to younger, female and ethnic minority voters, who are far more likely to back Remain. Now the party and its prospective leaders are pitching for the votes of former Ukip supporters and their own ultras – and those who refuse to play ball, such as Boles and Grieve, face deselection. Theresa May scraped back into Downing Street by squeezing hard a socially conservative demographic of white school leavers – yet this group is falling by 1 per cent each year while the proportion of voters from ethnic minorities or white graduates relaxed about diversity grows.

Perhaps the Tory party deserves to die after inflicting this cataclysmic mess on the country then telling half the electorate, along with almost all businesses, that it is deaf to their concerns. Yet Labour is little better; if anything, its ideological divides run even deeper. It looks anachronistic, dithering and irrelevant under Jeremy Corbyn. The party has also been taken over by intolerant hardliners who brook no dissent.

No wonder a major new poll found that fewer than one in five voters identifies with the Tories and even fewer with Labour. I cannot recall such despair with politics in my lifetime. Yet we must cling to hope. So look at Slovakia, where a liberal lawyer who had never before run for office has just been elected as its first female president by promising to restore decency to politics in the face of corruption and crass populism.

‘Maybe we thought that justice and fairness in politics were signs of weakness’, said Zuzana Caputová after victory in a campaign that eschewed personal attacks on rivals. ‘Today, we see that they are actually our strengths’. Fine words. Our country needs some kind of similar change to disrupt a floundering system that lies so cruelly exposed by a foolish referendum.

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