The Case for Conservative Renewal

The race to succeed Theresa May will be a marathon and not a sprint. Her successor will have the to present the Conservatives as the Party of change, in order to beat Corbyn's Labour.

by Patrick Sullivan, Political Editor on 28 January 2019 18:14


For the Conservative Party to stay in office post- Brexit, it must first play the regeneration game. The longevity of key British franchises such as Dr Who or James Bond is their inbuilt ability to refresh themselves in order to keep the concept appealing to an audience who would otherwise grow tired of it.

In 1872, Benjamin Disraeli referred to the Liberal Treasury Bench as beholding “a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickering on a single pallid crest”. Following on from the Brexit debate, regardless of the eventual outcome which is yet to be determined, the British public will have been living with the same politicians day in day out, often discussing tedious, yet important issues of process, dominating both the airwaves, pub chats and conversations outside the school gates throughout the country.

The lasting result of rebel Tory MPs’ motion of no confidence in Theresa May as party leader towards the end of last year, was not only a fantastic Christmas present to the PM, but also a significant game changer. In making the commitment not to fight another general election which secured the required votes to remain in office, Theresa May made the bargain of exchanging finality for security. She now has an end date on her premiership and for the next twelve months cannot be challenged. As such, the issue of her leadership is effectively taken off the table. Critics of the PM will say that in calling Article 50 without a negotiating strategy, she imposed the current deadlines causing strain upon British politics upon herself. By calling the 2017 general election, she threw away the inbuilt majority bequeathed to her by her predecessor.

Mrs May’s defenders say that by triggering article 50, the prime minister ensured the speediest exit from the EU, in keeping with the referendum result and in calling the 2017 election, although losing her majority, the legislative consequence of her calling such an election was to manifesto bind 80% of sitting MPs to delivering Brexit in line with the referendum result.

Who is right, and who is wrong, remains to be seen. It is of great benefit to the Prime Minister that many of her critics desperately want to be proven wrong.  What happens with her premiership will be determined in the coming days and weeks, but for those active in British politics, the matter of the leadership of her party is now one of legacy and therefore ultimately something to be decided by the history books. If anything, Mrs May has proven to be tenacious; whatever happens, she will stay on as Prime Minister until the last day she possibly can.

She has now told us the approximate date of her departure and therefore created a scenario in which ambitious MPs from the Conservative bench can now set out a future vision for their party after the current Brexit debate has resolved itself and they will be able to do this without any sense of disloyalty. The key to the Conservative party’s success can be found in a 2007 Dead Ringer sketch in which Tony Blair, as played by the excellent Rory Bremner, states that new Labour is if anything about renewal before collapsing onto the floor and, in true Doctor Who style, regenerating into the figure of David Tennant, who most famously played the eleventh Doctor.

When the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell, started to fall ill and have trouble remembering his lines, his wife went to program producers to say that Bill could not fairly be asked to do the program for much longer. It was at this point that the show runners created a brilliant concept which would allow the show to refresh itself and consistently adapt to the times keeping it relevant. The Doctor, it was decided, due to being after all an alien had the fantastical ability to regenerate into a new form, as the previous one grew old and tired. Hartnell being unaware of his wife’s intervention, did not want to go, but told producers there was only one man in the country who could replace him and that was Patrick Troughton.  Physically, Troughton could not have looked more different than Hartnell.  For one, he was considerably shorter; but Hartnell realised he could play this to the program’s advantage.

The first episode of Doctor Who famously aired on the day of the Kennedy assassination, meaning the show had to, unusually for the time, be re-aired some days later. The Prime Minister at that time was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had ascended to the top job while being a member of the House of Lords and only becoming an MP after renouncing his peerage in the tradition of Tony Benn, the erstwhile Viscount Stansgate, and fought a by election for Kinross and Western Perthshire. This little aside, once again illustrates the law of unintended consequences, as it was through socialist Tony Benn renouncing his peerage that a sitting member of the House of Lords was able to find the mechanism for which to ascend to the premiership in the second half of the twentieth century. Douglas-Home, like his predecessor Harold McMillan, came in a long line of Tory paternalists, portraying themselves often as a nation’s wise and kindly grandfather.

It was in this mould that the first Doctor was fashionable. Indeed, he was introduced as the grandfather of the first companion Susan Foremen. By 1967, Britain was deep in the midst of the white heat of the technological revolution. Britain had its own pop-culture savvy premier in the form of pipe-smoking, celebrity hand-shaking Harold Wilson. Although still with its fair share of old Etonians, the Tory party was now run by grammar school educated, Ted Heath. In terms of popular culture, London was truly swinging with the King’s road acting as cultural HQ, where it would not be uncommon to walk past a rolling stone or two and Bob Dylan. This was the era, so different from our own, was most comically illustrated by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers series of films. It was in this cultural and political environment that Troughton was asked to take on the mantle of the Doctor. Instead of playing it as Hartnell had, a kindly grandfather, Troughton reinvented the Doctor as what he described a cosmic hobo, stumbling from adventure to adventure while playing a flute or some such instrument. This put the show once more at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist and made it relevant to a new generation of young people.

The principle tenants of the program remain the same: Troughton still had a police box, which was bigger on the inside than on the out, and still had adventures in time and space. The key concept remained the same, but it was renewed to become relevant for the next generation. When times moved on, so did the show. Troughton himself was replaced by John Pertwee who was then replaced by Tom Baker and so on…

It is the ability to adapt to the world around it that has enabled Dr Who to become the longest running science fiction program on television. Another great British franchise that of James Bond has been known to pull a similar trick. Of course, the founders of the great British tradition of regeneration are the Conservative Party, which is the longest running Political Party in the world. The Conservative Party has illustrated vividly in Quintin Hogg’s 1947 book The Case for Conservatism the Party’s role in providing a moderating influence on the dominant ideology of the day, which in the 19th century was classical liberalism, and in the mid 20th century was socialism.

In modern times, the Conservative Party showed its ability to regenerate with the succession of John Major to Margaret Thatcher. The Tory Party, not wanting to reward dagger wielding Michael Heseltine for his betrayal of Thatcher, put their faith in the relatively unknown figure of John Major. Major pierced the public consciousness in mid 1989 when Thatcher promoted him to Foreign Secretary, and four months later, Chancellor of the Exchequer. He only first entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987 but most people would struggle to name who the office holder is at any time. This meant that upon the resignation of Mrs Thatcher, Mr Major has only spent little over a year in the public eye and as a fixture in the public’s living rooms through news broadcasts and front page headlines.

Major was therefore not saddled with the baggage of the preceding decade of Tory rule in which many difficult, but necessary, decisions were made. Major then had a year to establish himself as prime minister in the eyes of the public before running what has to be regarded as the most successful election campaign in Conservative party history where Major was able to amalgamate his own unique life story, growing up as a working class lad from Brixton, who despite having only six O-levels was able to make it to a senior position in the banking sector before reaching the highest office in the land. So confident of victory was Labour that their then Party leader ,Neil Kinnock, virtually declared victory days before the actual vote at the infamous Sheffield rally.

Major’s come-from-behind campaign which secured the Conservative party a record fourth term, was in large part due to him selling himself as a different type of Tory prime minister, representing a new classless Conservative party. In the extremely effective John Major: The Movie party political broadcast, showcasing his origin story and keeping it real by campaigning on soapboxes up and down the country. Major would receive the largest amount of votes of any Prime Minister in British political history. Although, he is probably most remembered now for the 1997 general election defeat, it can be argued that this occurred due to a failure of the Party to renew itself and John Major, a man who once wanted to run away and join the circus, forgetting the old maxim of the great ring leaders “to exit the stage, with the audience begging for more”.

Major had the year preceding Thatcher’s downfall to establish himself with the British people while still being a fresh face with the British electorate upon assuming the premiership, and still be relatively fresh when running against Kinnock, who by that point had been leader of the opposition for over half a decade, himself. The ascension of Tony Blair and David Cameron to the high office of prime minister which in both cases was the only role in government both men served means that the traditional eligibility requirement of having previously held government office is no longer valid.

It is the public’s opinion that if you have what it takes to win the battle for your Party’s leadership, you have passed the minimum threshold to at least be considered a potential Prime Minister.

In the case of the Brexit debate, which feels much like a show that has gone on for too long, and has become both repetitive and tedious to the general population, it would be well advised for the Conservative Party to consider someone who has not been a consistent presence in our lives over the past three year; often appearing on our screens when we receive news updates on our phones. These pocket politicians have become the modern equivalent of the exhausted volcanoes Disraeli so colourfully referenced a century and a half earlier.

The reason Theresa May was selected to be Prime Minister was the short Party leadership calendar. David Cameron was only able to seize the Party crown because Michael Howard manipulated the system so that there would be an unusually long race for the leadership, enabling Mr Cameron to set out his leadership stall all summer long, culminating in his masterful 2005 address to Conservative party conference. Had it been a short campaign, the advantage would have been that of the established figure of David Davis, the then shadow home secretary, who had decided not to challenge Mr Howard upon the vote of no confidence in Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. This time around, the leadership campaign of which the starter gun was fired when Mrs May survived the December vote of no confidence, has the length of a political marathon.

Now, with this wide open window to set out a vision for the Party after Brexit, there is ample opportunity for anyone who meets the eligibility criteria of having a seat on the Conservative green benches to become our next prime minister if they have the audacity to consider themselves worthy of that high office.

Patrick Sullivan is the Political Editor of The Commentator @PatJSullivan

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