Courtesy is so important in politics

It is perhaps unfortunate that the UK’s Conservative party MPs have never thanked the party members for saving them from the disaster of Theresa May’s premiership.

Perhaps they weren’t even grateful, seeing how quickly they recoiled at the members’ choice of Liz Truss.  Truss – who announced on Thursday she would step down – wasn’t even given enough time to dig a shallow grave, in contrast to May, who was indulgently permitted to erect an elaborate mausoleum and find out that no-one else would join her there.

Their defence – and a robust one – is that the members cocked up in imposing a leader both unrepresentative and incompetent.  But it’s horribly compromised by their failure to provide the minimal support necessary in a party system.  And also by the fact that Truss – in her clunky and uninspiring way – was pointing them in the right direction.

All this is an important context to the constitutional requirement that those MPs now birth a government offering a programme for which its members can be collectively responsible.

It’s just conceivable that the importance of the stakes will let them. 

A centre-right government needs to strike the right compromises in three areas: the constitutional integrity of the UK (in light of pressures in Scotland and Northern Ireland); a growth path for the economy (based on post-Brexit deregulation and market incentives); and an end to political unrealism through the mechanism of necessary fiscal and monetary austerity.  

But the collective loathing in Tory ranks is such that this may not be possible.  

When Boris triumphed in 2019, and rehabilitated a good number of his Europhile opponents, and some of their policies, it looked like a difficult new compromise might have been struck.  Recent events suggest this conclusion was somewhat premature.

But his temporary success then is why – deeply improbable as it might seem from outside – he may be the only man (or woman) with a shot of now bringing them (and the party membership) under one flag.

The MPs’ favourite – former Chancellor Rishi Sunak – carries the taint of association with faction and with the Truss lynch mob.

Still, the great news is that the British system evolved to deal with just this eventuality.  One or other of these Conservative MPs will be given a chance to put together a coalition of suppressed hatreds with an agreed programme which can command the support of a majority in the lower chamber.

And if this is beyond them, Labour leader Keir Starmer should have his turn.  Some of the Conservatives might feel they should join him.

If a stable government fails to emerge, the constitution prescribes an early election.

A proportion of the Conservative party membership will be hoping for this outcome, seeing themselves in the same position as the farmer who contemplates burning the barn down on the basis that it would get rid of the rats, and permit replacement of the cats.

But in politics, it’s foolish to expect dramatic events to have equally dramatic outcomes.

The Truss turmoil is the latest eruption in a multi-year civil war that emerged most spectacularly during Brexit.  In turn, it reflects the long-term difficulty in adapting right-of-centre parties to political reality.  Centre-left parties aren’t even in the game yet.

And so, at a time when all the focus is on the dramatic day-to-day developments, tuck away in the back of your mind, three longer-term trends highlighted by l’affaire Truss.

  • The loss of even the pretence of balance in the legacy media (or the perception of such by half the population, which is surely the same thing).  The relentless selection of the most unpleasant images of Truss does seem to have violated some kind of hitherto self-imposed collective ordinance.
  • The potential for political parties to self-destruct in order to renew in times of profound social and economic conflict.  Britain’s Conservative party may be the oldest standing political party in existence but they are at risk of dissolving in faction, as did the Progressive Conservatives after Canada’s 1993 election.
  • The failure of a younger, smarter, more homogeneous, professionally-qualified and selected political class to address – let alone resolve – looming political problems with skill.  A generation of stupider and more humble Tory MPs would have told them that supporting the team comes first and not many of you will make it to the top (although perhaps this latter must be revised in light of Truss’s seven week tenure).

And finally, for Guardian readers, don’t attach great weight to the ‘now on the road to rejoining the EU’ stories which events like this always generate. There are so many ways for a British government to tie itself to the perceived safety of the mother ship without infuriating more than half the population by a formal surrender of sovereignty.

One thought on “Courtesy is so important in politics

  1. Thank you, a well balanced post. I am fast coming to the conclusion that a Labour government for while might work better on lots of issues. Just to name a few. Palestine, Russia,  Northern Island, Scottish Independence, Malvinas and last but not least better a relationship Europe. No one trusts this lot of Tories who have forsaken their roots.


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