The Blog

The Tory Party's Festering Wound Exposed

The dressing used to cover the infected wound on the body of the Conservative Party is completely off now and the stench of inflamed flesh tells a fascinating and bitter story.

The dressing used to cover the infected wound on the body of the Conservative Party is completely off now and the stench of inflamed flesh tells a fascinating and bitter story.

There have been many distractions from the wound over the decades it has been festering. These include a range unpopular policies that have filled front pages, and the rise of Ukip.

We have lived through wars and supposed apocalypses, the internet has changed the world, Labour has jumped to the right and (more recently) taken a step to the left, and yet the Tories are doing the EU Time Warp once again.

After Margaret Thatcher was stabbed in the front, in 1990, by normally timid Europhile Geoffrey Howe, efforts were made to cover the gaping wound near the heart of the party. Raptor-like belligerent Thatcher was replaced by the apparently bland John Major, a man who left his circus family to become an insurance clerk.

Betraying his much-mocked grey veneer, Major has at times shown some fire. In the 1990s he reportedly called Eurosceptics "bastards". More recently he has helped to expose the full horror of the Tory Party's wound and implications for the future.

Sir John has described the leave campaign as "an unforgivable fraud on the British people". Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr yesterday, and perhaps recalling his circus roots, he said they were peddling "nonsense on stilts."

Responding to Brexit campaigners' pledges that, if leaving the EU, £100m a week extra could be put into the NHS, he also said: "The concept that the people running the Brexit campaign would care for the National Health Service is a rather odd one. I seem to remember Michael Gove wanting to privatise it, Boris wanted to charge people for using it and Iain Duncan Smith wanted a social insurance system. The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python."

As his term as prime minister was plagued by constant rebellion by Eurosceptics, Major's position shouldn't be too surprising. But given that his post-Thatcher era role was to cover the wound, it is interesting seeing his gusto at tearing the dressing off now.

One of the things the Major government did to try to hide or distract from the gory mess was the 'back to basics' initiative. A more fitting title would have been the 'shut up about Europe, just talk about this' initiative.

'Back to basics' emphasised 'traditional' moral values, a "return to those old core values.. to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family".

As Major said those words, in 1993, the Tory schism over Europe was huge. He cannot have expected them to heal the party, therefore it would appear to be a distracting diversion to the sort of dull 'golden age' fantasy we now hear peddled by Ukip.

The dark side of 'back to basics' was that it attacked those who didn't fit into Major's misty-eyed vision of a Britain full of languid cricket matches on village greens or a very limited conception of family.

Rather than deal with the party's pathology, 'back to basics' played sections of society off against others and attacked the marginal. Single mothers were singled out for attack and Tory newspapers obligingly ran numerous pieces attacking single parent families.

The initiative collapsed and left the Tories looking hypocritical after a series of sex scandals within the party were exposed. Even John 'Mr Grey' Major was subsequently found to have been having an affair with MP Edwina Currie. Nevertheless, 'back to basics' did its job - it drew attention from the party's affliction.

Over the decades other dressings, in the form of policies, have been applied but the wound has just festered. As we have got closer to the referendum and Major and others have tugged at the pus-covered dressings, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove could be viewed as grumbling anthropomorphic bacteria in some apocalyptic antiseptic advert.

The rarefied backgrounds of those who dominate the Tory Party perhaps helped them play down the seriousness of the pathology. Passive aggression with some seemingly jocular proclamations from the 'elite' may have worked to a degree historically, but few people now are oblivious to the genuine violence of this battle. They are, after all, not just fighting over EU membership but for control of the Tory Party. Boris Johnson, who has previously emphasised the importance of staying in the EU, is unlikely to find a better opportunity to propel himself to the prime minister role.

Just as after you remove a dressing the skin can look very strange, the Tory Party we will see in the near future could look very peculiar indeed. If the UK votes to remain, it is hard to see those who campaigned so bitterly to leave gaining key positions without the infection remaining. If the UK votes to leave then we will have a remarkably different looking front bench. In fact, it is more likely to resemble Ukip than the relatively muzzled Tory Party we have seen since 2010. This would mark the biggest shift to the right since the election of Thatcher's government in 1979, and would not clear up the party's infection but merely add to the wider toxicity ailing global politics.