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Monday, March 11, 2013 

The Tory party's doomers.

At the very best of times it's extremely tempting to laugh long, loud and hard at the Conservative party.  There are few political parties that would consider either Jacob Rees-Mogg or Peter Bone to be the best people to defend government or party policy, and yet time after time one or tother turns up on Newsnight, Bone only a week ago making the hilarious claim that it was Labour that had a problem with women, at the same time as there are only four women in the cabinet, to the incredulity of Oona King.

Funnier still, at least for those of us on the outside, is the party's continuing love of fratricide.  It may well be true that the Tories have only successfully ousted two leaders in the past 22 years, the same number as the Liberal Democrats, yet the level of plotting and blood-letting that's been involved in the Tory turmoil puts their swifter acting coalition partners to shame.  John Major may well have been doomed after Black Wednesday, but the leadership challenge by John Redwood was the death knell.  Iain Duncan Smith's defenestration is notable now only for how it led to Michael Howard promoting and pushing both David Cameron and George Osborne; IDS is unlikely to have performed much worse than his successor eventually did with the voters.

And so now we have the increasing murmuring against Cameron, although in truth a fair few MPs never signed up to his windmill loving, husky hugging, letting sunshine win the day Toryism in the first place.  It doesn't matter that in power Cameron has been as John B notes to the right of Major's Tories, despite supposedly being tempered by the presence of the Lib Dems, still at the first real sign of trouble there appears to a substantial minority prepared to overthrow him.  Where they've got the idea from that his replacement would do any better is unclear: he or she would still have to deal with Clegg and friends, which precludes scrapping the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from the ECHR, let alone embarking on the kind of ultra-Thatcherite economic fantasy as outlined today by Liam Fox.  Regardless of what happens between now and the election, it will be fought mainly on the achievements of the coalition, rather than what the party can offer were it given the opportunity to govern alone.  Dumping a leader who's more popular than your party midway through your term of office isn't going to play well.

Moreover, if you are going to launch a coup, your chosen replacement needs to offer both a genuine alternative and have something approaching either gravitas or a status within the party able to win over those disgusted or alienated by your actions.  The Tories are in a position similar to that of Labour five years ago, when there simply wasn't anyone able to mount a challenge to Brown and be taken seriously.  David Miliband hadn't succeeded in building himself up enough, and anyone else briefly talked about were either impossibilities (who, like me, remembers that hilarious Newsnight when a focus group decided John Reid was a leader in waiting?) or quickly pulled back, probably once they realised that Damian McBride had a file on them.

I mean, who frankly is Theresa May? She is to the Tory party what Dobbs and Huple are to Yossarian in Catch-22: perfectly agreeable on the ground, but you'd have to be crazy to get in a plane where they're at the controls. She's not even the cliched safe pair of hands, as has been demonstrated by the way her department keeps cocking up or lying about their attempts to deport Abu Qatada.  She's also been helped as home secretary by Labour's splitting off of much of the Home Office's former responsibilities to the justice secretary. Indeed, the way she's been talked up, both by herself and it seems George Osborne, suggests some of this might well be a put up job designed to winkle out open dissent which can then be picked off.

The unhappy fact for the disenfranchised in the party is that there is only one other person with widespread appeal among their number, and he isn't currently an MP. Even if Boris could pick up a seat either through a by-election or through an early "retirement" in a safe constituency, Johnson is hardly the traditional figure many seem to want, nor is it clear how his act, which just about saw him through in London last year for a second time, will play on the national stage. He also might reflect that his party needs to break a whole series of precedents if it's to get a majority in 2015, and that regardless of how good he is, he might not be able to manage it.

Instead, the wisest move for all concerned might well be to spend the next couple of years either establishing themselves as contenders, or grooming those who have the potential to be. Should Ed Miliband not be the next prime minister, there's now a number in Labour ready to take over from him.  Picking up the pieces after a defeat is surely better than pre-emptively smashing your own chances.

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