These swivel-eyed loons, they don’t know a good thing when they’ve got it. You cast off the shackles of the past, usher your people into power (sort of) and what do you get? A bunch of angry, scared party loyalists stirring up trouble like an old man shouting, “What’s happened to my television?” at the computer you’ve bought him. A recent YouGov poll found that 73 percent of the country thinks the Conservative party is divided. It’s a figure similar to those polled by grey-haired dead-man-walking John Major in the mid-90s. In those days, with the Tory’s nuclear winter closing in, Major looked around at the “bastards” he saw causing trouble for him, struggled limply and then resigned himself to being humiliated by Tony Blair, a grinning man who had – as Cameron later would – taken his party away from what they traditionally stood for.
Apart from being an omen of what might lay ahead for the Tories, it’s a stat that raises another question: Why is it that the leaders of political parties often end up not representing the majority of their party? It’s easy to look at the Tories as a mass of mildly bigoted, wealthy home counties types presided over by a cabal of less bigoted, wealthy home counties types who happen to also be ambitious, Oxbridge types. More intelligent, driven and conniving than their grassroots supporters, the people (men) at the top resent their core support while resentfully recognising they need it. The Tory party donor Lord Ashcroft, writing on ConservativeHome, more or less spelled out this appraisal of the Tory grassroots:
"For all its virtues, the Conservative membership does not look the same as the rest of Britain. This is an observation, and a pretty inescapable one, not a criticism… Tory members are, by and large, older and better off than voters as a whole, and their political priorities do not always match those of the people we need to convince if we are to win."
The kind of people Ashcroft was referring to were found by the Financial Times in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, a kind of Jack-Wills-in-town-form that sits by the Thames and sports more rowing clubs than job centres. The FT interviewed Bob Woollard, Marlow’s premier Tory activist, who said that “Gay marriage is the straw that has broken the camel’s back,” and that the kind of “social engineering” he believed gay marriage amounted to, was really the domain of “the socialists”. We’ve all got those friends who we’re embarrassed of, the ones we feel anxious about introducing to people because they might go rogue and say something wrong or do something weird. For David Cameron, these are those friends, a flock of rich, white people who’d really rather their “odd” brother didn’t have the opportunity to shame the family by marrying his “friend” Dominic.
These old school Tories aren’t the only group Cameron has alienated, though. The batch of new, upwardly mobile MPs that came to power in 2010 – former professionals in their thirties or forties, like the doctor Sarah Wollaston, the fruity-voiced academic Kwasi Kwarteng and Rory Stewart, the “man who walked across Afghanistan” – have found life in Westminster dull and uninspiring and are said to resent Cameron’s in-group. One Tory MP told the Economist that this group of bright young things made for a “pathetic sight, traipsing around the Commons like figures from The Shawshank Redemption”. It’s got so bad then, that serving David Cameron is akin to doing 25-to-life in an emotionally uplifting yet tough maximum-security prison that is patrolled by a predatory male-on-male rape squad.
Instead of using a pencil to dig their way out of their political prisons, most of this new generation of Tory MPs are simply kicking their heels on the backbenches. Unfulfilled by the grunt work provided by their day jobs and overlooked by Cameron and his inner circle, political life is not providing them with the power and influence they were promised before they entered parliament. I wish I could tell you the young MPs fought the good fight and the party leadership let them be. I wish I could tell you that, but parliament isn’t a fairy-tale world. Instead, they've simply become another disgruntled clique within a party full of cliques, one that Cameron seems to represent less and less of.
The “swivel-eyed loons” in towns like Marlow are to Cameron what the old school, John Prescott-type union men were to Blair. The lifeblood of the party, they had to be partially left behind in order to gain power. Blair’s scrapping of Clause IV, his creation of “New Labour”, marked him out as a different type of Labour politician. His relentless success led the Tories to believe that the only person who could return them to power was someone who could out-Tony Tony. More hand gestures! More intent, concerned gazing! More use of the phrase “you know...”!
But Tony stuck around too long, he got that look in his eye, the look leaders get when they begin to convince themselves they need to stay in power forever because there’s really no-one else who can do the job as well as they can. (It’s the look Robert Mugabe wears 24/7 and I’ve been told by people who’ve worked with him that he says exactly the same thing about being more than happy to leave if the right man is there to take his place.) After ten years, Blair’s brand of ultra-managed, PR-drilled, morally corrupt leadership was wearing thin. Cameron, Blair’s heir, is suffering from this now. Like Tony, he has become distant from his party, who seem to think of him as an elitist micro-manager. On top of that, the British public may have decided they want “real” characters; people they can believe haven’t been plucked from a shelf of gherkin jars in Alastair Campbell’s empty, whitewashed basement.
While Nigel Farage comes across as the genial version of a man who might shoot you for trespassing on his land, and his party seem to have no actual policies, he at least seems not to have a focus group living in his head. Perhaps this is just the kind of smooth dissembling that all politicians are capable of but whatever it is, it is appealing to the British public’s growing fatigue with well-drilled leaders. In this sense, Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have more in common with each other than they do with many of those they lead. They're all relentlessly media-trained, polite white men who went to Oxford or Cambridge. They're competent, professional and smooth, no doubt intelligent in their way, but they've all failed to unite their parties, all failed to truly inspire their people.
With the rise in issue-led politics coming alongside and being influenced by the rise of personal expression via the internet, the British political landscape seems increasingly atomised and so representing a large group of people politically seems increasingly difficult. Cameron, embarrassed by his core and eager to hang on to a job that is conditional on the support of the Lib Dems, has tried to take what he believes is a moderate line. When Margaret Thatcher reduced the influence of the traditional centre-right Tories – “The Wets”, as they later became known – she could do so in the knowledge that few of them would defect to the centre-left SDP party. She may not have represented The Wets but by God, they’d just have to put up with it and try to wrest control of the party back from her.
Today, disaffected right-wing Tories can jump ship – or threaten to jump ship – to Ukip. As the polls stand, there are four major political parties in Britain. This may well be a natural by-product of mid-term disaffection and protest voting but the dissatisfaction of so many in Westminster and the rise of smaller parties suggests that it is even harder for a leader to represent his or her party. Now, more than ever, the quiet hardcore that keeps a political party ticking over is realising that, hey, it might actually be able to get those snooty leaders to take some of its crazier ideas seriously. For Cameron, this will probably end with him being held to ransom by the kind of Tories who believe gay marriage is “social engineering”. They will continue to make a fuss, they will continue to threaten to join Ukip and in the end he will have to either step down or lurch to the right in order to keep them happy. He will be no more representative of them than he ever was and, on top of that, he will have capitulated to them.
To win elections, leaders have to move beyond their party’s core and reach out to a wider public. The balance is a fine one because, after all, these leaders only got where they are with the support of that core. Like a band that seeks greater sales following a cult first release, political leaders can compromise themselves by doing the equivalent of releasing a “we’ve gone pop” second album. Cameron is struggling with this balance. The country already thought he might be an Etonian who secretly laughed at their commonness behind their back, now his party seem convinced that’s what he’s doing to them. He’ll be very lucky to ever get to the point where people can recognise that look in his eye, that look that says: “I’d give up the leadership, but who’d replace me?”
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew
More British politics: