Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Palace Coup

After his performance in a 6:0 thrashing of Dundee last week in Glasgow, I saw Celtic's young centre Tom Rogic described as "the Alice Springs Torsten Frings". If it's Australia we're taking inspiration from, I do find myself wondering whom in the Conservative party is the Whitehall Malcolm Turnbull. 

There's a difference, though. Last week's palace coup in Canberra was purely politics. Tony Abbott is an absolute blackguard who is detested, as far as I can make out, by everyone in Australian politics. But that's not why he was sacked. He was defenestrated in the grand Australian tradition of throwing leaders out as soon as their chances of winning the next election decline to less than 100%. 

A look at the fates of the last few Australian prime ministers to govern in Parliament House shows this. Abbott was thrown out by his own MPs. His predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was one of the most popular Australian prime ministers ever before he was toppled by his deputy, Julia Gillard, before he toppled her in turn, before being thrown out by the voters (that latter group apparently having been totally overlooked). One has to look back to John Howard, the creepy wee man who replaced Paul Keating in 1996, to find an Australian prime minister who managed to serve a full term without being sacked by their own MPs.

It's rarer in British politics. Even while it was clear that Ed Miliband was consistently failing the Number Ten Test, there was no thrust against him by his MPs. Ditto Gordon Brown - the man who fled from every contestable election in his life managed to limp on to a General Election despite it being obvious that he was repulsive to voters in England and Wales. It's almost three decades (it will be 27 years next week, as it happens) since a sitting Labour leader was challenged for the leadership. The previous time a sitting Labour leader faced a leadership challenge was 1960. No Labour leader has ever lost a leadership spill.

The Tories, as one would expect, are rather more ruthless. Since Labour's last spill, where Neil bastarding Kinnock beat Tony Benn by a 9:1 margin, the Tories had a failed, then a successful coup against Maggie Thatcher, a failed John Redwood-led coup against John Major (Major won by two thirds), and replaced Iain Duncan Smith after just two years as leader. 

Thatcher herself came to power by overthrowing Edward Heath, who ten years earlier was the first Tory leader to actually be elected. In that leadership election, Enoch Powell considered that he had been humiliated in his third-place finish. He received 5,0% of the votes - a full half point more than Liz Kendall, further to the Right than Powell, garnered in the Labour edition this month. 

It now rather looks as though we're going through the first Palace Coup since Alan Pardew replaced Tony Pulis at Selhurst Park.

This isn't political in any way. Just eighteen weeks ago, David Cameron led the Conservatives to their first election win in more than two decades. He won the Scottish independence referendum a year ago, keeping the United Kingdom intact. In terms of the integrity of the United Kingdom, he possibly imagines himself to have contributed more than any British prime minister since the war criminal Winston Churchill. He would have every right to. He doesn't face a coup because it's considered he's a loser - rather, on the contrary, the British prime minister has already announced that he will not lead the Tories into the next general election. 

But the concerted barrage of attacks this week - increasing in intensity as we move toward the Conservative conference next weekend - can't be seen as anything other than an attempt to force him out. 

There is little political imperative for removing Cameron now, given that he's going at any rate at some point in this parliament. His politics aren't particularly extreme - he's a milksop leader, firmly on the Wet side of the Tories. 

Perhaps that's the problem. 

The rabid, ultra-right, frothing-at-the-mouth, poor-hating Tories (imagine, your Theresa Mays, John Redwoods, Norman Tebbitts, Liz Kendalls, Iain Duncan Smiths) have quietly seethed over the last five years as Cameron patiently explained to them that they couldn't bring back workhouses quite yet, because the Liberals would block such radical Right-wing policies in the coalition government. 

If anyone reacted with more horror than Ed Miliband to that exit poll at 10.01pm on election night, it would have been David Cameron. 

Every Conservative leader is a coalition leader, delicately balancing the two wings of the party. When they fail to balance, they fall. Maggie Thatcher found that out. John Major almost found that out. Despite his 2:1 margin of victory in 1995, he only held onto power by three votes (he had decided to resign if he received fewer than 215 votes: he got 218). 

Cameron is much closer in temperament and belief to the Liberals than to the Right of his own party. He would have felt much more comfortable governing alongside Nick Clegg than Iain Duncan Smith. The Liberals were a good deflection shield for Cameron - and now they've gone, the Right would certainly expect much more influence in the governing of the country. 

Given the identity of the people and papers attacking the British prime minister, it seems reasonably clear that the coup is coming from the Right of the party - as in Major - rather than for pragmatic reasons - as in Heath. 

When Thatcher was toppled, the balance of her mind had been disturbed. She was clearly quite seriously mentally ill by the time the Cabinet moved against her. Had she not been removed, the Tories would certainly have lost the General Election in 18 months time. None of these are the case with Cameron. He recognises that leaders cannot go on and on and on.

What is interesting in particular about this particular coup is that it doesn't seem to benefit a single candidate for the Tory leadership. Cameron inherited George Osborne as Shadow Chancellor, and has retained him as his finance brief for over ten years. Their economic policies are inextricably linked. Theresa May, although not given particularly senior Shadow Cabinet jobs by Cameron, has been his interior minister since Day One of his premiership, retained in position even after the switch to majority government freed up more ministerial positions. And it would insult the intelligence of the reader to explain why a focus on Cameron's university activities could only cause harm to Boris Johnson. 

So if it's not about the Tory leadership per se, and it's not about the last or next election, what on earth could be inspiring such a coup? One of the most striking things about it is the personalisation of it. The drip-feed of stories is clearly intended to undermine not just Cameron as a leader, but as a person. 

The story about him shagging a dead pig could only ever be intended to humiliate. It might be that the intention of humiliating him is to neutralise him.

The intervention of a former British prime minister in contemporary politics is (despite the best efforts of bulging-jawed weirdo Gordon Brown) a rare event. It was extraordinarily unusual to see Jim Callaghan or Edward Heath speak publicly about the activities of the British government. Wilson, of course, suffered from Alzheimers and never spoke about his successors. Major was the very model of a former British prime minister. He was and is discreet. If Thatcher was the Matt Busby turning up to the training ground every morning after retiring to try and overshadow the new manager, Major was the Alex Ferguson - giving his phone number over and maybe turning up for the Party Conference/Champions League, but making it clear that the new man was firmly in charge. Tony Blair is much too busy making money - and until 2010, much too scared of Gordon Brown - to involve himself in politics. 

There was, of course, one event in which former British prime ministers were trotted out by a terrified British establishment to use the gravity of the rarity of their interventions to make the public think twice. 

All three living former British prime ministers - Major, Blair and Brown - made significant interventions in the Scottish independence referendum last year, each making their own contribution to the sustained terror campaign perpetrated against Scottish voters by the British regime. Major threatened a British war on the Scottish economy, Brown threatened a British war on the Scottish health service. Blair, being Blair, just threatened war. 

The effect this had must not be underestimated, particularly for older voters whose entire exposure to news is through the media of television, radio and newspapers, which painted these interventions as major State events. 

This will have not gone un-noticed by the British establishment.

Cameron foolishly promised UK voters a referendum on the country's continued membership of the European Union. 

Blair and Brown will both speak out for the European Union, but the former is distrusted - hated - in large swathes of the UK, and the latter's intervention more likely to do harm than good, particularly in England where he is blamed (accurately) for the destruction of the national economy.

The humiliation of David Cameron will neutralise him. It's hard to imagine a man who thinks as highly of himself as Cameron does putting himself in a position where his interventions in favour of keeping the UK in the EU can be instantly undermined by a single sentence: "you fucked a dead pig: why should we take you seriously?". 

For those who wish the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, the loss of Cameron as prime minister will be quite a big blow. He can be relied upon to speak out in favour of the EU (we all know that his "renegotiation" is a load of mouldy old bollocks which will change nothing about our relationship with, or obligations to, the EU), and he is genuinely committed to the UK being part of the EU. 

There are those in the Conservative party for whom this is not the case. The resignation of David Cameron - and he surely can't survive this week - could benefit any number of people within his party. His systematic humiliation, which will result in him playing an atrophied, if any, part in public life as an ex-British prime minister, can only benefit those in his party who do not wish an important Conservative voice to be heard in favour of our membership of the EU. 

1 comment:

  1. For historical accuracy, IDS could have only ever been an interim, short-term leader, since as a Roman Catholic he could never be appointed Prime Minister, nor for that matter, Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer.