It began to be a serious problem back in the days of the early 1990s. A faction developed within the ranks of the Conservative Party that was more interested in pursuing ideological purity than practical politics. Poor old John Major was driven to distraction by people who were “harking back to a golden age that never was”. He longed to be rid of the incompetent bastards within his own Cabinet but knew that he had no choice other than to keep them inside his tent pissing out.
Eventually the whole problem got so bad that he went so far as to resign as prime minister and force a vote on whether he was retained as leader. Winning with 66% of the votes wasn’t enough and the fanatics continued to snipe at him and divide the party.
Splits in the Conservative ranks
More recently those splits in the Conservative ranks have become so routine that they might make for an interesting spectator sport. Were it not for the damage they have done to this country. The prime reason that Cameron decided to hold a referendum on whether Britain remained within the EU was to manage splits within his own ranks. The country is now slowly starting to regret the divorce at leisure as the problems with cutting ourselves off from our main market accumulate with time rather than disappear.
Instead of satisfying the extremists, Brexit has simply wetted their appetite for more. Indeed, once Boris Johnson made it clear that the route to the top was to tell the British people almost all their problems could be solved by adopting one simple cure, that approach to career development became the weapon of choice for many within the Conservative Party.
Actually that isn’t entirely fair. It is much worse than that. People like Liz Truss may actually be daft enough to believe what they are saying. Instead of hanging her head in shame and disappearing to the shadows after doing more economic damage in 49 days than any prime minister in history, she is busy telling everyone that will listen that she should have been given longer.
Most sensible people think she had her chance and blew it, proving once and for all how much harm silly far right political theories can do if you apply them fanatically enough. She seems to have concluded that the problem was she wasn’t daft enough for long enough.
Good honest government?
As soon as she left office Rishi Sunak began trying to convince us all that he could control the fanatics and bring his party and the country back into the fold of sensible managerial politics where the focus was good honest government rather than ideological obsessions. It has not exactly proved the easiest of challenges. Every week seems to bring a new factional grouping that is determined to create a challenge to his leadership.
The latest group of Sunak critics within his own ranks is the New Conservatives who appear to believe that the clue to electoral success is to challenge Suella Braverman for not being sufficiently fanatical about bringing down the level of immigration. This lot think that the way to cure the staffing crisis in the care system is to ban all import of foreign labour because that will magically bring forth an army of people who have been enthusiastically waiting to take up badly paid jobs that require a lot of hard work and skill.
Chaos in the Conservative Party
Sunak is also hampered by the slight problem that he has his own share of enthusiasms for damaging policies. It isn’t easy to competently manage an economy that has been split off from its main market when you have been one of the earliest and most enthusiastic cheer leaders for the Brexit mistake. It isn’t simple to modernise British business with speed and efficiency when you have consistently dragged your feet on every measure that would help the country to adapt to new environmental circumstances.
Nevertheless he is trying hard to position himself as the leader of common sense practical conservative politics and trying to cling on to power for just long enough to be able to go to the country claiming that the chaos is improving and he needs more time to effect the cure. That is a very hard thing to do when you depend on the votes of a lot of MPs who want to go in a very different direction and need the support of party members who thought giving Truss the keys to number 10 would be a good thing. The chaos within his ranks remains.
The truth is that there are at least two completely different political parties battling for control of the Conservatives. The party is only held together by being in power. If they get dumped out of office at the next election, then what is left to prevent a formal split?
The right is badly divided
Across Europe it is now common for the right to be badly divided with a multiplicity of political groupings battling for attention. It used to be normal for every country to have a powerful party that was mainly interested in doing whatever was best for business. Many of those business-orientated parties are now weak and on the margins of power. They have been replaced by increasingly strident enthusiasts for political theories that once only belonged to the margins of the far right.
It was never true that Britain was a PLC that just needed properly managing, but it wasn’t an entirely daft idea for the government to focus on competence and economic success. What is now emerging is much more dangerous. We are witnessing the Putinisation of the right. Trumpianism becoming the fashion.
Many will be tempted to celebrate those splits and take delight in the impact on the Conservatives poll rating. But beware. If old-style Conservatism collapses, it could bring much danger in its wake. There are some much nastier forces sitting in wait to benefit from any failure of the next government to take office. If a bland Labour party fails to tackle the nation’s problems with sufficient success, then there are some very nasty alternatives out there hoping to benefit from the cynicism of the public about all mainstream politicians.