“Coco Pops have lost their sparkle since the sugar tax,” a connoisseur of breakfast cereals lamented the other day. Many commentators posit a similar decline in Conservative leadership races, for the present one sparkles only intermittently.
Nobody says how wonderful it is that Conservative members are even now voting for the next leader of their party – a right successfully defended by Tim Montgomerie when he founded ConHome in 2005.
Nobody remarks that the hustings being held all round the country, last night in Cheltenham, give members admirable opportunities to question the candidates, and to show what they think of the answers given.
It is true that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak cannot sparkle all the time. Often they have to resort to the stump speech and the stock reply.
They find themselves accused of lack of originality, as if it were possible, or desirable, always to be original. “Men of Letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation,” as Edmund Burke observed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
But for Conservatives, true wisdom lies more often in the rediscovery of neglected truths than in the invention of new ones.
And the candidates’ ability to perform, and to adapt, under pressure is being tested pretty well by this admittedly somewhat protracted election. Sunak, as the underdog, has demonstrated a capacity to become increasingly forceful, as when he asserted last night that a refusal to extend direct help with energy bills to the poorest would be “a moral failure” for which “the country will never ever forgive us”.
Whatever merits this peaceful, orderly, democratic leadership election may possess are taken for granted. How much easier it is to pour scorn on the whole process, and to suggest it can have no good outcome.
In a recent blog – reprinted by The Spectator under the headline “The crisis at the heart of the Conservative Party” – John Oxley posited an analogy with the cockpit voice recordings recovered from the black box after a crash:
“In those final fateful moments, you can observe highly intelligent, highly trained professionals making error after error, gradually dooming them and their passengers. Despite the ringing alarms of the onboard systems, they lose sight of what they are doing or how to avoid the impending doom. They pull the joystick instead of releasing it, they shut down the working engine instead of the failing one, or sometimes the two pilots pull in different directions, cancelling each other out. Eventually, they hit the Point of No Return and, shortly after, the ground.
“The current Conservative leadership election has a similar atmosphere. Every day in this interminably long contest, the final two candidates fire out press releases and half-formed policy proposals, only to wind them back in – flailing around the controls they want to wield in a month’s time. Meanwhile, the country heads towards crisis.”
But when has the country not been heading towards crisis? I defy any reader to name a period in history when prudent people have not warned: “All this is going to end in tears.”
Every time we cross the street might end in tears, every twinge of pain could herald incurable illness, every triumph can turn in a moment to disaster.
And every Conservative leadership contest is inglorious. The party itself is often discontented with both the process and the result.
The press is excited by bad news and bored when things go well. It searches out deficiencies, which is in many ways a valuable thing to do, for it acts as a check on corruption.
But this means anything which is working as it should goes unreported. When did you last read an article about the in recent years excellent safety record on British railways?
Various ways in which the Conservative Party works well go unremarked even by those who report most closely on its activities.
The party has prospered since the 1830s by working out what the nation needs, and by providing this more quickly than the Opposition.
In order to discover what the nation needs, it is necessary to have an argument, or indeed many arguments. Some of these are occurring during the leadership contest.
The press reports this as “blue on blue attacks”. It is actually an essential process of debate, which might benefit from being more violent and wide-ranging than it is.
I do not for one moment mean to imply, as a rationalist might, that the clash of opinions will lead to the right answers. But there is at least a chance it will lead to less bad answers.
We need not allow ourselves to be deluded by various pundits who imply that if only ministers were as far-sighted and incorruptible as the better kind of newspaper columnist, we would find ourselves entering a state of technocratic bliss.
Nor should we depress ourselves by comparing the squabbles of the present day to an imaginary past when Olympian figures ruled with majestic wisdom and no group of Tories ever ventured to fight tooth and nail against some other group of Tories for control of the party.
Chips Channon, Conservative MP for Southend-on-Sea from 1935-58, describes in his brilliant Diaries, edited by Simon Heffer, the reaction of many Tories – including Lord Dunglass, who as Sir Alec Douglas-Home would go on to serve as Prime Minister, and Rab Butler, who unexpectedly missed becoming PM – to the replacement on 10th May 1940 of Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill:
“Alec Dunglass and Jock Colville arrived in our rooms and told us the terrible tale. The PM [Chamberlain] had just come back from the Palace, Winston had kissed hands and was now Premier…We were all sad, angry and felt cheated and outwitted. England in her darkest hour had surrendered her destiny to the greatest opportunist and political adventurer alive!! Rab was cold, and added that if Halifax and Chamberlain allowed themselves to be duped and bamboozled by Winston, that arch scoundrel, they deserved to be. Alec who more than any other has been with the Prime Minister these past few weeks and knows his moods and actions, let himself go. He had been dethroned by treachery to which Winston was a party – he could not resist the temptation. It had been his life’s ambition, and with the prize dangling so near him he had seized it. I opened a bottle of champagne, Krug 1920, and we four loyal adherents of Mr Chamberlain drank his health, ‘To the King over the water,’ I said. Then we parted, but not before we had resolved to ‘get him out’ as soon as possible. Winston, with too much rope, is certain to crash one day.”
One of the delights of Channon is that he is so often wrong. But it is undoubtedly true that a great many Conservative MPs distrusted Churchill in May 1940, refused to cheer him on his first appearances as Prime Minister, and remained loyal to Chamberlain.
The story we tell ourselves afterwards is often at variance with how things seem at the time, and so, one may guess, it will prove on this occasion.