A toxic conservative civil war is brewing – and it threatens to leave the party in ruins


If Sue Gray’s report is bad enough (or even if it isn’t), there are now at least 54 Tory MPs ready to call for a no-confidence vote against Boris Johnson. His attempts to consolidate his position do not go well and reveal the superficiality of his personal support. “If Nadine Dorries is your main cheerleader,” says a minister, “you’re really sunk.” But it is not: not yet. Potential mutineers are waiting for a reason. They must determine not only what would follow, but how fierce the fighting would be – and whether the group could survive it.

The old curator omerta, where MPs bury their grievances and disputes in the name of party unity, is already collapsing and the damage has begun. Did Gavin Williamson really say he wouldn’t build a school in Bury if his MP didn’t vote with the government? Did the Tory Chief Whip really tell Nusrat Ghani that his ‘Muslimness’ was raised as an issue in Downing Street? These are serious — and grim — allegations that voters might not soon forget.

What Theresa May once called the “wicked party” seems to be making a comeback. Tory whips are accused of intimidation, which may sound like accusing a boxer of fighting. While most governments have whips who represent all wings of the party – using flattery as well as threats – No 10 only chose Johnson loyalists who had a soft spot for candor. This has led to a lot of resentment, much of which may soon emerge.

Margaret Thatcher had the wets and the drys, Cameron had the modernizers and the traditionalists, and Johnson had the Brexiteers and the Remainers. His unusual way of dealing with this was to dismiss all 21 of them by removing the whip. It pained him, but he would justify it to his colleagues by comparing it to the purges of Augustus Caesar: brutal but bringing years of peace. The flaw in his analogy was that they also meant dictatorship.

Most Tory leaders show party unity in their cabinet choices, but Johnson has filled his team with those who have backed him in the leadership race. “He never even tried to be the candidate for unity,” says an exiled ex-cabinet member. “He led a factionalist government, so the divisions grew.”

Red Wall MPs have provided the Conservatives with their majority and some are standing as a new guard coming to freshen the blood of the old party, creating a new, truly nationwide conservatism. Liz Truss is generally seen as the back-to-school champion, but her problem may be how she promises low taxes — likely her signature theme — while backing the high-spending policies Johnson has been selling.

It’s a common complaint from southern conservatives: that red wall MPs love high spending and low taxes, and won’t accept contradiction. “You talk to these guys and do a double take,” says one curator. “They always want more spending. You think: which party do you think you are in? They might answer: Boris Johnson’s party and the mandate he personally won allow him to push through his own mix of higher-tax, higher-spending toryism. One of many arguments that would play out in a leadership campaign.

Even among low-tax Tories there is a split, epitomized in the row between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak over the impending National Insurance hike. At a Cabinet meeting, Truss said the party should honor its manifesto promise not to raise taxes and let borrowing take over. This led to a rather fiery response from Sunak, who told him that such an approach was fundamentally unconservative. It marks a far deeper conservative dividing line than is generally thought.

One of Sunak’s most firmly held political beliefs is that serious spending commitments should be funded (via taxes or cuts) rather than dumped on the next generation via the national debt. That’s why he’s for the National Insurance hike: he thinks it reflects the decision to spend all the extra money. This model could be taken further, so that all additional NHS spending is funded by raising what would effectively become a special NHS tax – thus focusing conservative minds the next time they want to flood the health service with ‘silver.

If it were to come down to Truss vs Sunak, that would be a main point of debate. She could be joined by Kwasi Kwarteng, Iain Duncan Smith and others offering reduced taxes to party members and being relaxed to pay for it with a deeper deficit. Everything would work out eventually, they said, because lower taxes tend to mean more growth and, therefore, higher incomes. Sunak and others would call it economic vandalism, more Reaganian than Thatcherian. It’s a very conservative argument, recited in David Davis vs. David Cameron in 2005, but the passions run deep.

Then we have the most enthusiastic Brexiteers, appalled that so little has been done with Brexit powers (David Frost left government on this) and eager to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol rather than see more sovereignty eroded. Then Scotland: nearly every Tory in Holyrood has come out against Johnson, and at least some of these rebels have flirted in the past with the idea of ​​breaking with the “London Tories”. Such tension bodes ill for the so-called union party.

So we have a recipe for multidimensional Tory wars: big spenders versus frugalists, Scots versus Brits, Northerners versus Southerners, radical Brexiteers versus incrementalists, free traders versus protectionists. All fought, plausibly enough, with a toolkit of dirty tricks. The Partygate scandals so far emanate from a single building: 10 Downing Street. Would similar evenings have taken place in other departments? If the rule-breaking activity in the lockdown is enough to end political careers, there may be a few more ministers worried about what might come out of it.

Perhaps that’s why some of Johnson’s allies say his haters can overlook any smooth transition. That he would cling to the last, maximizing agony, so there would probably have to be a snap election. Do they really want all this now? After me, the deluge: far from being the most optimistic message to keep his party united. But over the next tense days, this may be the best he has.


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