Theresa May announces she is going to stand down as Prime Minister, 24 May 2019

One of these books is worth reading …

Their rhetoric is unhinged, yet still they preen


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The future of Toryism does not lie in books. This, at least, is what these four volumes suggest. One is an account, more or less, of his times by a member of the lobby; another is as bitter and silly a collection of essays as has been published this century; and the truly worthwhile book, Danny Kruger’s Covenant, is really about the good book. Theresa May’s The Abuse of Power merely reminds us how much she wasted hers — and will your precious time too, if you read this worthless yet petulant thing.

The Right to Rule: Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories, Ben Riley-Smith (John Murray £25)

Ben Riley-Smith’s The Right to Rule, about the #13Years of Conservative government, sets out what happened. The Case for the Centre Right, edited by David Gauke, inadvertently explains why “liberal Conservatives” couldn’t stop it and don’t understand how they helped it happen. Kruger’s Covenant convincingly explains what this meant. Although Riley-Smith defends himself by saying his account is of key moments only, the selection is erratic and the absences puzzling.

What’s glaringly obvious is how hugely reckless Lex Greensill’s pitchman is. Each of the three referenda David Cameron conceded he did so needlessly — all were certainly capable of being resisted. The vote on changing the first-past-the-post voting to the Alternative Vote (AV) system would ultimately have destroyed the Tory party, if it had passed.

Yet Dave did it, he claims, because Nick Clegg “tricked” him during the 2010 coalition negotiations: he implausibly bluffed that Gordon Brown and Labour would (via the minority “rainbow” coalition which would have been formed) somehow give AV to the Lib Dems without a plebiscite.

The Scottish referendum result was shockingly bad: almost 45 per cent voted to break up the UK, the “world’s most successful union”. This outcome is bewilderingly underappreciated in the rest of the country, but Cameron and George Osborne made it still worse. In the 2015 election they weaponised Scotland as a bogeyman in England for the first time in nearly three centuries — by putting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Then there’s Brexit.

We got an in/out referendum on EU membership because Tory modernisation failed electorally. “Cameron’s Conservatives” couldn’t win a majority in 2010. This was despite being fought in the gale of the worst recession since the Great Depression and against the most unpopular PM in history (whom Andrew Marr, then political editor of the BBC, was baited to ask, in effect, “are you on drugs for being mad?”).

Cameron and Osborne losing the referendum has much to do with how unpopular they always were — but also how entitled Osborne in particular was. Indeed, the Brexit contest inside the Tory party was more than anything else the war of George’s succession. Plumping for Leave was, as Riley-Smith shows, no-brainer game theory for Boris Johnson: Leave won, Dave lost; Leave lost, Boris scooped the Tory party’s broken (and majority) Leave heart — and he didn’t have to leave.

The Case for the Centre Right, David Gauke (ed.) (Polity, £15.99)

If Remain had mattered to either Cameron or Osborne more than who led the Tory party, the answer was always there: buy Boris off with the leadership. They no more “believed” in Remain than Johnson did in Leave. The succession was the one true prize, and it was the only thing people thought was at issue: I asked just about every 2016 political editor who they thought would win, and not one said Leave.

Leaving the EU was made possible because, contrary to what those of us who were long-term or freshly minted Leavers thought at the time, the institutions weren’t against us. Rather, if the Electoral Commission was, it didn’t have the wit to hand official campaign leadership status to the self-soiling clowns fronted by Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Peter “Mrs” Bone. Instead, Vote Leave (VL) got the nod.

Calling the Referendum was the fatal mistake, it turned out, as the country was always going to vote Leave: all VL could do was not lose the campaign. It was obvious enough to me that there was no “science” to Leave winning (none of this comes up in Riley-Smith’s book). I learned when the referendum was to be; the inner counsels of VL didn’t know; I had them told; they refused to believe (saying, indeed, that not only was there not going to be a referendum in 2016, the “physicists” couldn’t win it that year). Eventually, hacks got around to asking Number 10 whether this was when the referendum was going to be, and were told “yes”. Even VL then had to believe it.

Vote Leave’s campaign was deeply mysterious. We had, in Boris, not merely the most popular politician in the country, but very close to the most popular celebrity. We also had Michael Gove. He kept making mistakes and coming in the next morning apologising for them. Some of us, ignorant of science and physicists, wondered what market research said Michael should be put on air so much, but that was another unexplained oddity.

Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation, Danny Kruger (Forum, £20)

Almost no one in Vote Leave thought we would win, bar the indispensable chief executive Matthew Elliott; I only thought we would in the last week. Elliott and Johnson were vital, but also critical to the victory of Leave was Jeremy Corbyn.

His own Leave prejudices to one side, anyone else as Labour leader would have demanded, in their own self-interest, to displace Cameron in the Remain campaign. Doing so would have removed a burnt-out liability for them. Corbyn, as unpopular a politician as any Provo-supporting anti-Semite-enabling Marxist dimwit has ever been, benefited hugely from Leave winning, as it broke the Tory party. His idiot instincts were close to genius at this point.

The Right produced Andrea Leadsom as its 2016 candidate. She beat its enemy, Michael Gove, 2:1, but then crumbled in the membership phase, withdrawing and handing the leadership to an untested Theresa May. Riley-Smith makes much of how hated “Nick and Fi” (Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill) became as her co-chiefs of staff. Their resented dominance was due to two things, though: the void that was May (which they can be blamed for, as they pushed her on to be PM), and May’s phenomenal popularity as PM before 2017 (for which they ought to be applauded).

Their manifesto was the agenda that won in 2019, but in 2017 it was fronted by a woman who couldn’t sell lifebelts on the Titanic. Riley-Smith has Hill getting news of her political death warrant from the BBC “a few minutes” before their exit poll was officially announced. All I can say is I know others who got their BBC call a lot earlier than that.

Hill and Timothy took responsibility for May’s hopelessness whilst she squalidly stayed on. Had she won her majority, she would undoubtedly have given us the Brexit-in-name-only (BRINO) she tried to get so disastrously thereafter. As I found so very hard to convince journalists at the time, far from losing us Brexit, the loss of her majority in fact secured it — for Great Britain anyway.

The Unionists were given a gift from God in 2017 and threw it away. They threw it away at home by trusting their billion-pound largesse to the devolved institutions to spend, which meant their worst enemy, the Northern Ireland Office, was able progressively to rob them of all political gain. They were too frit and incapable to take up full coalition at Westminster.

Boris, preternaturally cunning, could have displaced the wailing May on election night, but curiously left the undone Brexit doing to her. Enter the European Research Group (ERG), which, as Riley-Smith doesn’t say, was really VL’s “Conservatives for Brexit” sockpuppet rebadged as such.

Steve Baker had been patronisingly parked there by VL. Bear in mind, almost no one in VL thought there would be a parliamentary phase of Leaving as none of them thought we would win. Without Baker and the ERG rising to that challenge, Brexit would certainly have been lost, as in both the 2015 and 2017 parliaments I doubt the number of MPs who truly wanted Leave ever broke into three figures.

Their work culminated in the so-called “Spartans”. Baker agonised, Braverman rallied, and enough ERG members held out to ensure May’s defeat. This trapped, as we knew would be the case, May’s successor (whoever that was) in our maximal definition of Brexit. It was either that, or the government would collapse.

The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life, Theresa May (Headline, £25)

A government obliged, under Boris, to go for Brexit, did what May failed to do and won a landslide. How did that landslide’s real enemies, liberal Conservatism, fail to stop that? Purblind arrogance, as the faction of freaks assembled for David Gauke’s The Case for the Centre Right shows in almost parodic detail.

Gauke still imagines that Leave voters were nostalgic, troglodytic fantasists who hated change, as opposed to desperately craving it. Stale and bitter, almost every essay in Gauke’s collection is a self-satisfied sneer. What separates the Tory experience of Brexit from Labour’s is that although both parties’ coalitions were equally cleaved by the result, Labour has no equivalent of these people — no one who despises the voters they still have, resenting their political success.

Their rhetoric is unhinged, yet still they preen — Rory Stewart — that the other side is trying to exacerbate division. Their settlement is Blair’s, which leads them into absurdity. Dominic Grieve laments the political nature of Lord Chancellors now, for example, but we can’t revert to the ancient, pre-2005 days, as that would not be “considered proper”.

They are also bizarrely smug. Danny Finkelstein self-approvingly notes their generosity of spirit, compassion, realism, pragmatism and rejection of fundamentalism (and that list could go on). No wonder such paragons comfort themselves with conspiracy-theory imaginings that it took Russian money to beat them.

Along with Miriam Cates MP, Danny Kruger, MP for Devizes, made by far the best speech at the National Conservatism conference earlier this year. Both were stalwarts of what now seems set to be Suella Braverman’s first leadership bid. Covenant is an eloquent and learned account of why Conservatives should hope they win next time. It’s a glorious roar against the “long defeat” the complacent party is facing. Kruger demolishes the social contract for not summing up custom but instead being a mere idea. Love, life, death and sex are in this book: I’d pay actual money for it.

The enemies of the Order against the Idea (Locke et al) are massive and plain in view, being chiefly the Human Rights and Equality Acts. I regret that Brexit, and the ambition of Tory MPs, have taken up so much of our time here, as every other line is quotable. Live the family life this book commends, and treat your household to it this Christmas.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover