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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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HomeNewsWhen shove comes to putsch, Tory MPs have a death wish

When shove comes to putsch, Tory MPs have a death wish

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PERHAPS the parliamentary Conservative Party became tainted with Britain’s long membership of the EU and learned that when a democratic process like a referendum produces the wrong result, then the answer is to finagle things to achieve the desired outcome. 

The aftermath of the Brexit vote was the first clear manifestation of modern Tory democracy in practice, with the crazy-eyed Anna Soubry, the sinister Dominic Grieve and the phalanx of machine politicians and their robotic prime minister all striving to overturn the popular will. 

The summer of 2022 was marked by five rounds of voting by Conservative MPs to winnow down to two the candidates to replace Boris Johnson. This exercise was followed by a programme of hustings and debates involving the two finalists, despite the polls and bookies being clear from the outset how the cards would fall. 

The graphic below sets out the process, with the contenders passing through successive MP votes and gradually being eliminated. Two things are clear: The first is that colleagues didn’t really like Liz Truss much and that she only limped into second place ahead of Penny Mordaunt after the final MP ballot. This may owe as much to Lord Frost’s critical intervention as Mordaunt’s boss in the Brexit negotiations as to an appreciation of Truss’s leadership potential. 

The other striking thing is that Jeremy Hunt (the brown dot at the bottom left of the chart) was knocked out in the first round with a mere five per cent of the votes, so MPs didn’t much fancy him for the job either. 

How would the Conservative grass roots have felt if Hunt had made it into the final two? It’s impossible to say for sure, but there are indicators in the regular polling that the Conservative Home website conducted during the dog days of Theresa May’s government. 

Plotting the percentage support for Hunt as successor to May against the percentage recorded by the candidate who came top of the poll produces the picture below. Boris Johnson topped the poll for most of this period after Sajid Javid (dotted blue line) relinquished the top spot early on. 

 

Hunt remains broadly within the five to ten per cent range and at his best scores less than half the percentage support of the top performer at his lowest. If one can reasonably assume that the Conservative Home polls mirror the grass roots membership, then there was, and is, no enthusiasm for Jeremy Hunt as party leader. 

The next interesting snapshot involves the 2019 leadership election following Theresa May’s departure. The chart below shows the progress of only the two finalists through the same winnowing process as took place this year. 

One can see here that Jeremy Hunt was never seriously in contention for the leadership and that Johnson was always more than 20 percentage points clear of Hunt. True, Johnson lost some impulsion by the fifth MP ballot, but the membership awarded the avowed Brexiteer nearly twice the number of votes as the former Remain supporter received. 

The 2019 has in common with the 2022 leadership process that the Conservative Party membership had an important role that went beyond simply endorsing the decision of the parliamentary party. In 2019, the members reinforced the MPs’ choice of winner and in 2022 they upended it. Those were, and still are, the rules that governed both elections and which all participants – whether MPs or constituency members – should respect. 

After the 2019 election and with Johnson now Prime Minister, the Conservative Home monthly polls continued as a beauty contest among members of Johnson’s cabinet. Hunt was on the back benches, having declined to serve as Defence Secretary, so he was excluded from the rankings in which Liz Truss, Ben Wallace and Lord Frost (until he resigned from Johnson’s government) consistently led the pack. 

Among these front-runners, only Truss was eligible and willing to put herself forward for the 2022 leadership, and the level of support she received from the party membership can be no surprise given her previously consistent high scores. 

The turmoil of the last few weeks, fomented by the Conservative Party’s very own Peter Mandelson, as Jacob Rees-Mogg described Michael Gove, has effectively overruled the democratic process and removed Truss’s ability to select her ministers and determine the direction of policy. 

One might reasonably argue that a situation in which a mere 150,000 individual party subscribers can determine who shall be Prime Minister of a country of 75million souls is eccentric. But it is worse than eccentric if those 150,000 electors can then be set aside because the two-thirds of Conservative MPs who voted for Rishi Sunak or Penny Mordaunt in the fifth round of MP voting don’t like the final result or the policies that follow on from that result. 

Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng certainly made mistakes – the reduction in the top rate of income tax looked clumsy and ill-conceived and the communication overall was dire – but it is above all the speed of the coup which gives the plotters away as a cabal determined if not immediately to seize power then at least to hobble the new administration. 

The death wish of parliamentary Conservatives is wonderful to behold, but any rush to comparison with the Gadarene Swine should be resisted as being unfair to the swine – who were infested only by a standard-issue demon and not by the whispering Gove.  

So demented have these people become that they appear to have overlooked that while MPs can and have turned against constituency party members, the local Conservative associations can return the compliment and deselect their arrogant and unprincipled representatives. 

It might be possible to reduce the scale of the bloodbath if many of the current MPs were jettisoned and replaced in time for the next general election. David Cameron’s ‘A-List’ progressives were always an anomaly in the Conservative Party and Conservative Campaign Headquarters – if Truss has the power to allow this – will need to show flexibility in freeing local parties to select replacement candidates who are less infused with a sense of their own importance. 

In other news, Goldman Sachs, whose hallowed precincts Rishi Sunak once graced, reported on Monday that Jeremy Hunt’s reversal of Kwarteng’s policies would push the UK into a deeper recession than it had previously forecast.  

Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, allowed himself to speak of a ‘meeting of minds’ with Truss’s newly-imposed Chancellor – a political and partisan utterance that should see him sacked. The International Monetary Fund last week allowed itself an opinion on domestic UK policy entirely outside its remit. 

In such a topsy-turvy world, perhaps an economic slowdown in the UK while the EU economy stalls would produce the kind of parity that Remainers believe would favour a UK return to the fold? The difficulty now is that yesterday’s wild conspiracy theories no longer seem at all outré, but boring, plausible and unimaginative. 

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Laurence Hodge
Laurence Hodge
Laurence Hodge is a regular contributor to The Conservative Woman

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