Rightwingers are happy to fight a losing battle for now – they see the modernisers’ weakness and are biding their time
The party of section 28 may soon be the party that legalised gay marriage. And deep in the Tory soul, there is a revolt at the very idea. Gay marriage? Over their straight, white, well-fed bodies. At least 100 Tory rebels will oppose the inevitable change.
Is this merely quixotic? Is the Tory right so bigoted that it will sacrifice the party’s future success by tearing it apart over this issue? A new book, published by the Tory pressure group Bright Blue, contains a foreword from former cabinet secretary Francis Maude arguing precisely this. “If our social attitudes are seen as backward looking,” he warns, “we will be unelectable.”
At an ideological level, this represents a battle between two wings of Thatcherism – the “mods” and the “rockers” as they were dubbed in the 1980s. The mods are market-oriented social liberals, the rockers traditional authoritarians. Politically, though, the fight is between those who want to make the Tories adequate as a modern, electable party of business, and those who think they can return to business as usual and rely on the “instincts of the British people” to keep them in power. This is why many whose past is traditionally reactionary are now on the side of reform.
Cameron’s leadership is symptomatic of this bind. His instincts, statements and voting behaviour were always rocker. In his early years as an MP, he cut a conventional figure as a rightwing Thatcherite, for example by lambasting New Labour’s repeal of section 28. Yet after years of Tory defeats, he knew he could only win as a mod. And if he hadn’t already known, Lord Ashcroft, whose cash funds Tory campaigns, let it be known to him. So while Cameron is ideologically close to his rightwing base, politically he knows he has to defeat them. Likewise with Maude, he was willing to bear responsibility for section 28 as a member of the government implementing it, but has since become known as a moderniser.
In many of the leadership’s battles with the base, the leadership can be grateful not to have won the last election outright. The fact of coalition has given the leaderships participating in it a degree of relative autonomy from their base. Had the Tories not been forced to coalesce with the Liberals, the expectations of the Conservative base would be even more unmanageable than they are. As things stand, senior Tories are gaining experience in governing with Liberals, and possibly finding that they prefer it to relying on the rockers.
This is why the Tory right are so bitter about the election. But it may also explain their destructive habit of contriving defeats for their own side. They are determined to put paid to the modernisation project, and wreck any prospective realignment, formal or informal, that may emerge from the experience of coalition. A 21st-century Whig-Peelite coalition would leave quite a few Tories filling in the Ukip membership forms and thus retreating, temporarily at least, to marginality.
The Cameronites, however, don’t appear to be seriously entertaining political realignment. Instead they have been relying on various party reforms to recruit a mass of passive members in order to marginalise the reactionaries. This has signally failed. And it has meant that in the meantime they’re increasingly spending a lot of time trying to placate their base, rather than cultivating a centre-right alliance. This is one of the reasons why Cameron has started to use explicitly Thatcherite language about “our people”, the “strivers”, and so on.
Some Tories think Cameron is making a big mistake by pandering to the Tory right. But he is arguably being quite realistic in placating his enemies. The main obstacle to any tacit realignment of forces in parliament that would empower Tory and Liberal mods is the central commitment around which their coalition hinges, the implementation of austerity. This has already squeezed the centre ground quite drastically. The Liberals can’t even keep their deposits in bellwether seats.
In this sense, the Tory right may be farther sighted than they appear to be. Just because a hard-right agenda hasn’t been feasible for the last 20 years or so doesn’t mean that they won’t have their day again. Since Labour can’t be relied on to seriously damage Cameron, the job falls to Tory backbenchers. They know that Cameron’s leadership is weak – soft, slippery and ill-defined, rather like his caricature in the Steve Bell cartoons – and that there is not a queue of talented mods ready to replace him.
The rockers could be forgiven for thinking that all they need is an opportunity and a leader who isn’t Nigel Farage. They’ll fight a losing battle for now so that in the future they can go back to gay-baiting, race-baiting, pound-saving, locking-them-up, sending-them-back and ruling-Britannia-with-an-iron-fist.