Giles Marshall 11.58am
With Tory cabinet ministers scrambling over each other to assure the party of their Euro-scepticism, one might wonder what the fuss over UKIP is all about. Aside from a matter of timing, it seems most Tories are united on the referendum. Yet of course, there is more to it.
UKIP is not only a repository for Euro-sceptics. Indeed, Europe is just the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of concerns. UKIP is fundamentally a protest party. For disillusioned Tories in particular, UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage who contrasts nicely with the more nuanced David Cameron.
Tory members and a significant number of backbench MPs are not happy in coalition, hate the notion of Tory ‘modernisation’ and dislike the thought of compromise. In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr Cameron’s great crime is in failing to recognise this.
Mr Cameron, of course, is trying to operate in the real world. His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than deep political conviction. It was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads. His Toryism is instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the party. That lies behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of ‘modernisation’ and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as EU membership.
Mr Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.
The party he leads no longer resembles that triumphant machine. It is questionable as to how far this change is due to the legacy of the party’s first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.
Whatever the cause, the Conservative party today is a puritanical beast, railing against the iniquities of the world but struggling to find solutions. Like 16th-century puritans, today’s Tories take comfort in purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.
Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against its constraints. They have managed to breach some, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government. In such times it is difficult to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.
Europe - or rather its forced removal - is the great prize. Mr Cameron has tried to feed that appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open no matter how much he tries to satiate it. He is facing the same problem as John Major. Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.
This is not the whole story. It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party. No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool Euro-denier has a hope of gaining the support of Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to win over the country as a whole.
Europe merely represents the high water mark of the Tory party’s desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right. Many members envy UKIP’s easy positions and rather want them for themselves. Many Tories now would prefer purity to power.
David Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the Euro-monster. He is struggling against a much bigger desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position that he has tried to force the party to vacate since 2005. It is possible that his failure is due in part to the incoherent nature of ‘modernisation’ itself, which was too Blairite in nature and should have taken stronger account of historic One Nation Toryism.
The big question is if Mr Cameron does indeed fail, whether there is going to be another chance for the Tory party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply assume UKIP’s mantle, and stay on the fringe.
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