Sadly almost all of my political energy in recent weeks has been used fighting against suspension from the Labour Party. Among the many annoying aspects of the situation, it is taking me away from one of the things I do best, namely attack the Conservative Party. To partly redress the balance, thought I would post the final chapter of my critical history of the Conservatives, a book published last year. So here are my thoughts on a decade of Dodgy Dave as leader of the Nasty Party.
We Are All in This Together 2005-2015
The Labour Party defeated the Conservatives in a third successive General Election on May 5 2005, obtaining a majority of 66. Labour won 356 seats, the Conservatives 198, the Liberal Democrats 62, and the others 30. The day after the Election, Michael Howard announced his decision to stand down as Conservative Leader. Following a review of the rules for Leadership elections, which did not lead to any changes, a contest began in October. Two ballots led to David Cameron and David Davis advancing, while Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke were eliminated. The vote among party members saw Cameron defeat Davis by 68 per cent to 32 per cent. Cameron – educated at Eton and caught smoking cannabis there – had only been an MP since 2001. He struggled to establish a strong image as Leader of the Conservatives, being criticised by many for his relative inexperience, and faced difficulty uniting the party. A veneer of socially-conscious Conservatism alienated the right, despite Cameron’s clear Eurosceptism.
Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister in 2007, and was replaced by Gordon Brown, the new Labour Leader, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for the 10 years of Blair’s premiership. At the same time John Prescott ceased to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, but Harriet Harman, who replaced him in that role, was not accorded the additional position of Deputy Prime Minister by Brown. The premiership of Brown was undermined by the onset of an international banking crisis in 2007, which developed into a global recession, and the biggest crisis of capitalism since the depression of the 1930s. With the Labour government struggling to deal with a budget crisis, as vast amounts of public money were used to rescue private sector banks, Cameron and the Conservatives gained ground. In June 2009 the Conservatives won the European Union election, with 25 seats, while UKIP took 13 seats, Labour 13, the Liberal Democrats 11, and the others 10. The Conservatives now resumed their link with the Ulster Unionists, running a joint campaign in the Northern Ireland section of this election.
Public confidence in the British political system was severely reduced by the scandal of MPs making excessive, and often illegal, claims for expenses. A campaign by the Daily Telegraph, during 2009, highlighted failings by both Conservative and Labour MPs. After requests under the Freedom of Information Act had been blocked, due to lengthy resistance by MPs, the Telegraph leaked information. The newspaper largely used the expenses detail against the Labour Party, and in favour of the Conservatives. Being outside the public sector, the Daily Telegraph was exempt from Freedom of Information, and did not have to disclose how much, and to whom, it paid for the leaked detail. It subsequently transpired that the Telegraph bought the information for £150,000 from John Wick, a supporter of the Conservative Party, with former links to the security services. The deal was agreed by Will Lewis, the editor of the Telegraph, who moved the following year to News International.
The electoral pact between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists led to an embarrassing rejection, as Sylvia, Lady Hermon, the only sitting Ulster Unionist MP, resigned from the party in March 2010. The reluctant Unionist alliance failed to win any seats at the subsequent General Election, and the pact was soon discontinued. That General Election, held on May 6 2010, led to a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives having 307 seats, Labour 258, the Liberal Democrats 57, and the others 28. The Conservative Party had failed to win a majority for a fourth successive General Election, which represented their worst sequence of results since the six successive defeats between 1847 and 1868. After several days of negotiations between parties, Gordon Brown and the Labour government departed from office, being replaced by a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. David Cameron became the Prime Minister, while Nick Clegg was his Deputy – a Con-Dem double act. Cameron, aged 43, was the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool, a Tory who took office in 1812.
The government quickly set about massive public spending cuts, with the Conservatives using a budget deficit as an excuse to attack public services. Cameron and the government told people “we are all in this together”, but the continuing problems of recession, aggravated by austerity, had a disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes, while the Conservatives rewarded rich people with massive tax cuts. The policy was overseen by George Osborne, a complacent Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had inherited a multi-million pound fortune. Unemployment increased to almost 2,700,000 by the end of 2011 – the highest figure since 1994.
A messy compromise between the Conservatives, who opposed electoral reform, and the Liberal Democrats, who had long been in favour of some reform, led to a referendum on the generally unsatisfactory Alternative Vote, in May 2011. The electorate rejected AV by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, a result which damaged the cause of electoral reform. Later that year the Coalition carried legislation to set a fixed term of five years for Parliament – unless there was a vote of no confidence in the government, or a majority vote of two thirds of MPs in favour of an early election. It appeared that the main motive was a wish by the Coalition government to bind the two parties making up the alliance, with a law that would force them to remain together, in power, for five years.
The Coalition government’s policies had an adverse effect on both the National Health Service and Sure Start. The Health and Adult Social Care Act 2012 led to major reorganisation of the National Health Service, with the Conservatives undermining the service through fragmentation and privatisation. Dozens of the Conservative MPs who voted for the legislation benefitted financially, through links to private health companies, which won contracts as parts of the NHS were sold off. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 unfairly disadvantaged many benefit claimants, particularly with the introduction of an under-occupancy penalty, generally known as the Bedroom Tax. Major cuts to Legal Aid were also imposed. In the light of these events, the Conservatives were regularly reminded of the “nasty party” tag by the Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband, who replaced Gordon Brown in 2010.
The Conservative Party, along with their friends in UKIP, whipped up hysteria about immigration, undermining Britain’s multi-cultural society. Internal argument among Conservatives over Britain’s role in the European Union continued to influence the party leadership. At the start of 2013, David Cameron announced that a referendum on British membership of the EU would be held if the Conservatives won the next General Election. The death of Margaret Thatcher, in April 2013, led to widespread re-assessment of her legacy. While Conservatives lauded Thatcher as a saviour of Britain, many people saw that Thatcher had encouraged a form of capitalism that was in crisis, sold off important public assets, and divided the nation. A lasting effect of Thatcher’s policies was a drop in the level of support for the Conservatives, who only gained a majority in one out of the five General Elections between 1992 and 2010. In the Summer of 2013, the Coalition government’s plan for armed intervention in the civil war in Syria was defeated in a vote by the House of Commons, as the Labour Party led the argument against this course. Cameron, who misjudged the situation, had to pledge that the government accepted the will of Parliament.
In May 2014 the Conservatives were reduced to third place in the European Union election, with 19 seats. UKIP won the election with 24 seats ahead of Labour, who took 20 seats. The Liberal Democrats were left with a single MEP, while the other parties won 9 seats. After a protracted and damaging trial, Andy Coulson, formerly director of communications for David Cameron, was convicted of previously organising phone-hacking at the News of the World – part of the News International group – and sent to prison in July 2014. Cameron’s judgment in appointing Coulson, who had already been under suspicion, was questioned. July brought another scandal, with credible allegations that Conservative MPs were active in a paedophile ring, during the Thatcher administration, prompting Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to announce an inquiry into historic allegations of child abuse. The chair of the enquiry, Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, had to step down a few days after her appointment, due to public pressure, as her brother, Michael Havers, had been Attorney General in the Thatcher government. Following this May blundered again, appointing Dame Fiona Woolf, who also resigned as chair, due to her friendship with Leon Brittan, who was accused of suppressing a dossier about paedophile MPs in 1984, when he was Home Secretary.
An independence referendum was held in Scotland, on the initiative of the Scottish National Party administration. In the weeks leading up to polling in September 2014, the Conservatives were worried that the outcome would be a vote for independence. With the Tories and Liberal Democrats unpopular in Scotland, the government was reduced to leaving much of the detailed campaigning against independence to the Labour Party, with Gordon Brown taking centre-stage. The referendum rejected independence, at this point, by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The government committed British forces to take part in air strikes against the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, having received backing from the House of Commons in September. Meanwhile British military activity in Afghanistan reached an end, 13 years after this action, led by the USA, was started under Tony Blair’s government.
During the Autumn two sitting Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, defected to UKIP, and were returned to Parliament for the latter party at By-Elections. Nigel Farage, the reckless UKIP Leader, fanned fruitless speculation about other MPs defecting from the Conservative Party – which he had once been a member of. Many people were concerned about the openly racist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic comments regularly made by prominent members of UKIP. Besides a cynical approach to Europe, UKIP had an extreme outlook, bordering on Fascism. In 2006 Cameron said “UKIP is sort of a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”. After ruling out a Conservative pact with UKIP across several years, Cameron changed his mind in Autumn 2014. There was growing support among members of the Conservative Party and UKIP for the idea that, in the event of another hung Parliament, the right wing parties should work together. In late 2014, and the early part of 2015, Liberal Democrat members of the government, anticipating the forthcoming General Election, sought to distance themselves from the Conservatives. There was clear evidence that the Coalition was failing to deal effectively with the budget deficit, and national debt. The Coalition reorganisation of the NHS had left it in crisis, and the Labour Party’s rescue plan was growing in popularity.
After 13 years out of power, as Labour won three successive General Elections, the Conservatives sought to re-create Thatcherism. Cameron was portrayed by supporters as a modern Conservative, in touch with ordinary people. The reality of Cameron’s premiership was continuation of old themes, which had motivated the Conservative Party since its foundation in 1830. For nearly two centuries, the Conservative Party has been run by the wealthy and powerful, with the party focussed on keeping those people wealthy and powerful. The rich benefitted in a limited recovery from capitalist crisis after 2010 but, for most people, Britain was a poorer place, both morally and financially, under the Conservatives.