Leadsom heralds a return of the ‘nasty party’

Published by the ipaper (11th July, 2016)

Shortly after the turn of the century a new party chairwoman stood before the Conservative Party conference and told stunned members some home truths. ‘Let’s not kid ourselves,’ said Theresa May. ‘Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.’ She was right – and her speech helped spark the modernisation that reshaped the party and returned the Tories to government under David Cameron.

One of the things that appealed to me about Cameron was that he recognised his nation had changed. He was relaxed in his own skin, with none of the hang-ups about gender and sexuality that troubled so many of his colleagues at the time. I helped him with efforts to transform the Tories in opposition and encouraged the emergence of a more diverse party. I had assumed one of his achievements was to have softened the harshest edges of the party.

Yet how hastily darker elements re-emerge. Incredibly, there are 84 Tory MPs who believe Andrea Leadsom should be the nation’s next prime minister. More than one in four of the Conservatives elected to Parliament think a reactionary minor minister is the best person to heal our nation’s wounds after the divisive Brexit vote. And that despite a flaking CV and strangely flexible position on Europe, there is no-one in Westminster more suited to reshaping our relationship with the world.

This is truly depressing, an indictment of the pathetic tribalism that plagues our political system. Leadsom had already paraded her prejudice before the media, saying she saw same-sex marriage as a mistake. Previously she called for the snapping of all regulation on the smallest firms: ‘No minimum wage, no maternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights,’ she suggested astonishingly.

Then came a crass weekend interview in which she indicated with chilling insensitivity she had more of a stake in Britain’s future than her childless rival. The controversy ensured another awful, anachronistic quote was overlooked: ‘I’m not a feminist because I’m not anti-men,’ she told The Times. At least she finally released one year’s tax return, although she has faced questions over her financial affairs.

So why a rush to endorse this character after a couple of adequate performances in referendum debates?Simple: because a hard-core of social conservatives seek to seize back the party after more than a decade of Cameron’s centrist approach. Lacking a more credible candidate, they coalesced around this junior energy minister despite her inexperience. Yet again they play political games at the country’s expense, just as with the push for Brexit that left them stunned by unexpected success and backtracking rapidly on key pledges.

Warning signs were there from the start. Iain Duncan Smith, the most dismal Tory party leader in living memory who went on to masquerade as a compassionate conservative, said Leadsom was the ‘real deal’ and he had never been so excited by a potential prime minister. She is supported by Owen Paterson, who flickered as a potential flag-bearer for this faction until his weakness become embarrassingly obvious as environment minister. And she is backed by many loud opponents of gay marriage, along with the usual hard-right malcontents and misanthropes.

Admittedly, the other candidates apart from May hardly offered the most appealing advertisement for Westminster – especially now that even Stephen Crabb, who fought a fine campaign, has been snared in a sexting scandal. Yet how insulting to voters that this minor league politician has been proposed to Tory party members as potential prime minister. Sadly, it shows how shallow the roots of modernisation were under Cameron, how fragile the heartfelt efforts to consign the nasty party to history.

The danger is the woeful Leadsom might win the crown. This should be an absurd suggestion, especially given the scale of challenges facing the next occupant of Downing Street. But party members are prone to backing outsiders in leadership contests, while Brexit highlighted again the frustration of electorates across the West over the failures of conventional party politics. Just listen to her supporters already blaming supposed elites, establishment stitch-ups and media conspiracies for their stumbling candidate’s mistakes.

There were Sunday paper claims 20 Tory MPs might quit the party if Leadsom wins. Certainly I have spoken with some moderates worried by the possibility and openly discussing realignment, while one look at Labour’s meltdown shows what happens when a hardline leader is forced on a more moderate parliamentary party. Meanwhile there is alarming evidence of Ukip and the far-right backing her, which would torpedo her chances with Tory faithful in a sane world.

There is no doubt Cameron made some big mistakes in office, not least in allowing migrants to be blamed for long-term deficiencies in public services and for calling that wretched referendum. Yet how often in recent days I have heard people on all sides and none saying they wished he was staying on given a glance at his potential successors.

This is harsh on May, who has the pragmatism and steel to possibly knit our nation together again and steer a path through the Brexit mess. But if Leadsom wins we will have witnessed a right-wing takeover that treats the electorates as fools. It threatens to further corrode dwindling public faith in politics. Above all, it would send a message to Britain that the nasty party is back with a vengeance.

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