The Tories: From decline to collapse?

RW Johnson writes on the troubles of the party of the British ruling class

The uproar over Liz Truss’s initial mini-budget signals a new low in the fortunes of the Tory party. Larry Summers, the Harvard economist and former US Treasury Secretary, called it “extremely naive” and the worst set of economic policies seen in any developed country for many years.

It was, he said, how an emerging economy was turned into a submerging one. The pound and the stock exchange slumped and many Tory MPs listened in horror to measures which they feared would be bound to lead to electoral defeat. No government in living memory has ever started so badly. In the City many fund managers concluded that Truss would be out of a job by Christmas.

One needs to view this in the longer perspective of Tory rule, always remembering that this has been the great and continuous party of the British ruling class, far more often in power than not. In the person of Churchill it had – at length – roused itself to face the challenge of Nazism, emerging exhausted but triumphant.

Unhappily, Churchill decided to soldier on after the war. By the time he returned to power in 1951 he was too old, often drunk and frequently could not remember the names of his MPs or colleagues. Cabinet meetings were a rambling mess. Eisenhower, invited to attend one, was horrified: “How on earth do you ever transact any business?” he asked.

When Churchill was finally persuaded to step down his successor, Anthony Eden, doubtless anxious at having to fill such giant shoes, swiftly picked a fight with Gamal Nasser, whom he convinced himself was another Hitler. This produced the disastrous Suez adventure, brought to a humiliating full stop by the furious American reaction.

Eden took sick leave abroad and a virtual cabinet coup replaced him with Harold Macmillan. Eden seldom set foot in Britain again. Spurred on by Washington Macmillan set about decolonisation at top speed – 12 colonies became independent during his six years in office but by the early 1960s Macmillan grew worried about what would fill the void left by the vanishing empire. The answer was obvious: Europe, and Edward Heath was sent to negotiate British entry to the EEC.

Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, was horrified when Macmillan and Heath simply accepted all the EEC’s terms. They were, he concluded, so desperate to get into Europe before the 1964 election that they’d agreed to anything put in front of them. Gaitskell, who had previously sat on the fence over this issue, was certain that British opinion would never accept the large diminution of sovereignty involved in such a concession.

As he explained to his friend, John F. Kennedy, the worst of all worlds would be if Britain went into Europe on the wrong terms for that would ultimately produce such a strong domestic reaction that Britain would then have to come out again, with the whole in-and-out process causing great damage.

Gaitskell then died and De Gaulle vetoed British entry, saying Britain was essentially an Atlantic power, always closely allied to the US, and that it didn’t fit into Europe. The utterly humiliating fact was that De Gaulle had judged the British interest better than had its own traditional ruling class.

The ultimate result was that the Tories ultimately did exactly what Gaitskell had feared, first leading Britain into Europe and then, a generation later, leading it out again. If one thinks back to the Tory greats such as Pitt the Younger or Disraeli it is impossible to imagine them so confusing their sense of the national interest that they would need to conduct a U-turn of such magnitude.

When Edward Heath finally led Britain into the EEC in 1973, he was at pains to reassure public opinion that no real diminution of sovereignty was involved. He gave a copy of the Treaty of Rome to his government’s legal officers for their opinion. They reported that the Treaty would indeed result in very significant reductions in British sovereignty.

Heath suppressed this report which only became public knowledge many years later. For Heath was a passionate Europhile who never forgave De Gaulle for his veto. I had not realised how raw Heath’s feelings still were on that subject when he came to see me many years later in my rooms in Oxford. In conversation I happened to mention De Gaulle. Heath exploded with rage, hurling expletives at the late French president.

Not long after I attended a dinner addressed by Oxford’s Chancellor, Harold Macmillan. The contrast was striking. Macmillan began by saying he knew people were asking how long he could go on as Chancellor (he was then 90) but “I, for my part, have always made it clear that I stand ready to make way for an older man”.

After a number of wicked witticisms he gradually got round to the subject of the friends of his youth, lost in the First World War, how they had been “the best of us” and how he had always felt guilty and unworthy for having survived. The audience, previously in gales of laughter, ended in tears. Perhaps only Churchill could have commanded his listeners so completely. It was an extraordinary performance, the old master almost casually showing that he had lost none of his powers.

Once Britain was in Europe the trouble began, gently at first. For year in and year out the opinion polls showed that most Britons didn’t like the EEC and rather regretted joining it. For several decades the political elite of all parties ignored this, just as they ignored the public opinion in favour of the death penalty and against “coloured immigration”.

These were not respectable opinions so MPs did not voice them. But as European integration deepened and the EU’s commissioners took an ever more interventionist role, opinion began to stiffen until the issue of Europe deeply divided the Tory party.

The issue came to a head under David Cameron’s government which, as it happened, contained three of my former students – William Hague and Jeremy Hunt (Tories) and Chris Huhne (Liberal). Chris, a keen Europhile, told me with amazement how little interested in Europe many of his cabinet colleagues were.

But Chris didn’t last long before becoming the first cabinet minister for many years to go to jail, bizarrely enough over what was originally just a driving offence. Cameron, meanwhile, was increasingly harassed by his anti-EU wing and ultimately called a referendum on EU membership with the idea that he would bury them under a huge YES vote. This was a huge miscalculation.

The 2016 referendum which produced the Brexit vote opened the tumultuous period that Britain is still in. First Cameron resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who got rid of many Cameron loyalists but proved incapable herself and was swiftly replaced by Boris Johnson.

I had known Boris as a clever and amusing man but the idea of him as PM was quite a stretch. He had a reputation for not always telling the truth, for being a bon viveur and rather lazy. He ruthlessly discarded all the ministers associated with Cameron and May, and pushed Brexit through before his well-known failings became a matter of public record.

So he too went through the trap-door and the result was Truss. She ruthlessly discarded most of Boris’s ministers so the current British cabinet, the result of this whole series of re-shuffles, is a 3rd or 4th XI. Truss herself is also decisively less able than most of her predecessors. Indeed, she rather brings to mind Gordon Brown’s dismissal of Tony Blair: “Tony is just completely shallow. In fact he’s deeply shallow”.

Truss has the notion that she is a second Thatcher and that she will ape Thatcher by standing for free market principles, overcoming initial unpopularity by being triumphantly proved right in the end. But Truss was not quite four years old when Thatcher came to power and her version of Thatcher is a sort of cartoon summary which does no justice to the fact both that the Britain she faced in 1979 was a very different place than the Britain of 2022 and that Thatcher was at first both cautious and prudent.

Truss, for example, is already talking of a showdown with the trade unions. Thatcher carefully gave in to the unions at first before carefully preparing the ground for her showdown with the miners six years later. Truss has cut taxes right away; Thatcher’s big tax cut came only after seven years in power.

In general Truss is acting out of ideological principle, paying little attention to the position the country is in, let alone the fact that the Tories now depend on working class voters in the so-called “Red wall” seats. Such voters, facing a tough winter amidst high inflation, will not be impressed by tax cuts for the rich likely to increase inflation. Labour is already 10% ahead in the polls and on current form could soon be 20% ahead, at which point Tory MPs will panic. One must not forget that most of them never backed Truss anyway.

This continual turnover of prime ministers and cabinet ministers, resulting in a cabinet full of nonentities led by a sub-standard prime minister is a clear sign of the utter turmoil which has engulfed the Tories.

This in turn is a reflection of the fact that Britain’s traditional ruling class has lost its coherence and self-confidence. Harold Macmillan, for example, was married into the aristocracy, was extremely well educated, witty and stylish and at one point, outrageously, nearly a third of his cabinet were his relatives.

Yet he was extremely well aware of modern realities and had a sure touch. Thatcher lacked most of those qualities but she was clever, determined, immensely energetic and a workaholic. Whether or not you liked her, she was extremely formidable.

The only really able prime minister since then was Gordon Brown, though he was a depressive with poor political instincts. In any general reckoning Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss would all come in the bottom rank.

In a sense the old ruling class never quite regained its balance after the war. The war left them over-dependent on the Americans, who pushed them to decolonise, which in turn led them to make an over-hasty decision on Europe, which in turn came back to bite them and in the resulting melee the Tory party has turned on itself and its factions have torn one another to pieces. The result now is a complete mess, with an electoral disaster likely ahead.

Probably only a resounding defeat and a period out of power will suffice for the party to lick its wounds, regroup and decide what its new priorities are. But that may be too optimistic. Currently the party is lost, divided and is far from fielding its best team.

Turning it back into the recurrent match-winner that it has always been is a very big ask. In France and Italy the old conservative parties have collapsed and been replaced by new entrants, while the Tories have just soldiered on unchanged. Until now. But nobody and no party is immortal.

R.W. Johnson