Before the weekend, political journalists and commentators were faced with the prospect of having to report on Brexit and the Liberal Democrat conference. And it was All Quiet on the Brexit Front. Given that the Brexit negotiations are more technical than political, and parliamentary arithmetic means the Lib-Dems are irrelevant, it was to be a bleak weekend.
Then Boris Johnson had a 4,000-word article published in the Daily Telegraph.
The article did not need to have 4,000 words. It could have had just 40, if those concerned the £350million weekly EU contribution Mr Johnson claimed could be redirected into state services. All mention of Jacob Rees-Mogg disappeared. The Big Beast Was Back.
This was the cue for a traditional media frenzy. This was the start of a leadership bid, said some. Conservative Party splits out in open, said others.
Then Amber Rudd appeared on our Sunday morning television screens. Even more speculation of leadership bids.
Something was up.
The media act as if the Conservative Party had a golden age of unity that stretched from 1922 to 1975, after which they have been fighting each other like ferrets in a sack. This is a fantasy borne of youth and inexperience. There have been splits over protection, India and appeasement. A Chancellor resigned in 1958 over spending, but the Conservatives still won in 1959.
Parties have policies, but they also have debate and differing views. They are a balance of opposing ideas and unity. The balance is maintained to retain voter sentiment. That’s politics. All politicians know that split parties lose elections. This explains why moderate Labour MPs were all but silent during the General Election.
The Wilson/Callaghan minority government had disagreements at the very top over monetarism and siege economies. And yet it was able to function and pass substantive legislation. It was never a caretaker regime. Of course its fall led to 18 years of Conservative government, but that was more due to its economic failings and its associations with militant trade unionism. Mrs May has her own bullets to dodge.
Another development was the intervention of a senior civil servant from the UK Statistical Authority, who publicly attacked Mr Johnson’s £350million statistic. He did provide a number of his own, but it was the number 1. This referred to a footnote in his letter, which referred to another letter sent last year to a Liberal Democrat MP which contained a table which had a different statistic. Exactly why the head of the UK Statistical Authority could not provide a competing statistic in the body of his letter to Mr Johnson has not been explained. Mr Johnson put his name behind a statistic. His critic did not.
None of the shadow cabinet has been able to land any punches on the government in terms of the outcomes of policy. No substantive votes have been lost. It is not on the back foot all that much, despite being weakened by the election result. Government is still proceeding, without much genuine controversy.
By contrast with the Conservative splits of the 1980s and 1990s, what is going on is sensationalised chicken-feed.
It is 2017, and 2022 is still five years away. Labour is more divided in Parliament than the Conservatives. Will moderate Labour MPs stick with Corbyn despite his taking the party in another direction? Will they allow themselves to be useful idiots of communist plotters? Both parties have their own crises.
The media are developing a narrative of a split weak minority government that is tottering. Actually, if all the Left-wing criticism is stripped out, it is not doing too badly. The crunch time will be at the Conservative party conference, where Mrs May will have to deliver the speech of her life. That test lies ahead. Mr Johnson’s article is a distraction.