With Number 10 fearing that rebelliousness is reaching epidemic proportions Liam Fox issues plea for unity and discipline
By Tim Montgomerie
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Liam Fox has a must-read piece in today's Mail on Sunday. He warns against simplistic post mortems into the US election result and against "making direct comparisons with British politics [that are] fraught with dangers". He does, however - like all of us (!) - suggest a few lessons.
Conservatives mustn't look like a party of the rich: "British Conservatives must rediscover the language of meritocracy if we are to reach out to the whole electorate. We must talk not only about aspiration but opportunity as well, for aspiration that is not fully matched by opportunity produces anger and resentment. We need to show that we understand that getting from the bottom rung of the ladder to the second-bottom rung is as important as getting from the second-top to the top."
Victory can't be found in the centre or on the Right but in being broadly-based: "Margaret Thatcher’s biggest win, in terms of vote share, was in 1979 when she had a team that included the full Conservative spectrum. It was intellectually rich and produced an extraordinarily creative political environment based on ideas not slogans. For the Conservatives to occupy its traditional role as the natural party of government, we need to recapture the spirit of social openness that brought people like me into it, people who did not come from a ‘traditional’ Tory background. There is no more point sliding the party Right along the political spectrum to please one particular tradition than it is sliding the party Leftwards to please metropolitan opinion."
Divided parties usually lose: "The bitter primary process saw Republicans picnic on one another with Newt Gingrich’s tirades against Romney leaving him open to attacks by gleeful Democrats. Conservatives in Britain who see serial rebellion against the Government – on almost any issue – should take note. The European debate should be conducted in a respectful and decent manner, with the emphasis on substance not personalities."
That last section from Dr Fox is particularly important. Rebelliousness is becoming a major problem for the Conservative Party. Not just rebellious votes in the Commons - like on the EU budget - but also open letters like that from the 42 Tory MPs in favour of press regulation.
The Tory leadership is beginning to despair that large parts of the parliamentary party are unwilling to think privately and then accept collective discipline. The independent-minded backbench Tory MPs reply that they'd be happy to be team players if they felt that their views were usually heard and often heeded by the Cameron leadership. They don't. I don't wish this evening to say whether the disunity in Tory ranks is largely a problem of freeelancing backbenchers or poor central party management but the result is clear for all to see. 69% of voters now see the Conservative Party as divided and only 35% think the same of Labour. Election experts say party leader image, economic competence and party unity are the three points of the traditional triangle of political success. Pleas to address the disunity problem from Liam Fox may be heartfelt and timely but new internal party infrastructure is probably needed to create space in which backbenchers and the leadership can forge more unity on more topics. Greater outreach to the wider conservative family and commentariat would also be welcome. Two reforms I've suggested in the past are regular meetings of the party's big beasts and, ad nauseum, a department of external relations. I have no idea if anyone in the party is thinking in these terms.