The real significance of piggate is the divisions it reveals among the Conservatives – and the more thoughtful Tories are worried.
As Tories meet in Manchester, you might expect right-wing press to be triumphant – after a surprise election victory, Conservatives have an overall majority and have set about putting their manifesto into practice, with their trade union bill passing its second reading three weeks ago. Certainly Tory commentators are producing a lot of froth about how Corbyn’s leadership of Labour is a disaster for the left, as well as much manufactured outrage in the last couple of days about conference delegates being egged and called Tory scum.
But more sensible Tories are also charting the serious problems ahead for Cameron. Of course, none of this will automatically lead to the government’s collapse, but the issues are real. The Telegraph has this morning published a piece by their veteran columnist Philip Johnston, for example, headed with the words “The election is already a distant memory as the PM tries to stop his party and country falling apart.” Johnston detects two major difficulties: the scale of the forthcoming cuts and Europe.
On cuts, the Tories are committed to ending the deficit by 2019-20. We’ll learn how they plan to do this in Osborne’s autumn statement on 25 November. What we do know is that Osborne asked each government department to produce two scenarios over the summer: one for cuts of 25 percent and one for cuts of 40 percent. It seems clear that local government will be a major target.
This has never been done before – it’s twice the level of cuts Thatcher planned after winning the election in 1979, and it comes on top of the cuts imposed by the Con-Dem administration. We can hope that there will be widespread protests. But cuts on this level will also lead to tensions inside the ruling class and the Tories themselves – with cuts of maybe 1 in 6 police jobs, for example, it was reported last month that West Midlands police are threatening to sue Theresa May.
Already we’re seeing divisions over the planned cuts to tax credits, which will mean 3 million families lose an average of £1000 a year in income from next April. Boris Johnson has this morning more or less attacked the plans, and in the Telegraph Philip Johnston claims that most Tories accept that they will have to reconsider them. Apart from the human misery they will cause, they seem set to do real ideological damage to a Tory party keen to make the ludicrous claim that it’s the party of working people. Having cultivated the myth that most welfare spending supports the unemployed, next April will help make clear that most people in poverty are working, with seven times as much spent on benefits for people in work as for those on the dole.
Cuts will also have a major impact on the NHS. In theory, the NHS isn’t being cut, it’s getting an extra £10 billion. But it needs more – Johnston estimates an extra £30 billion is required to meet the needs of an ageing population. Instead, the health service is expected to find “efficiency savings” of £22 billion by 2020. On top of that, the Tories are committed to changing a 5-day-a-week service into one that’s available at weekends, but there’s no extra money for that huge increase in availability. So the reality is that we see junior doctors balloting for industrial action against pay cuts of up to 30 percent, and the well-regarded Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge in crisis, partly due to “a significant shortage of staff.”
Cameron is committed to a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. It’s crucial to understand how divided the Tories are over Europe and how toxic the issue is for them. It was a major factor in undermining the credibility of the last Tory government – Prime Minister John Major was in 1993 recorded unawares referring to three Eurosceptic members of the cabinet as “bastards”. There is some debate among the British ruling class about its economic interests, with most supporting EU membership. The larger problem for Cameron is that nationalism, xenophobia and nostalgia for Britain’s supposed past glories have a major influence among Tory supporters, particularly those tempted by UKIP – who won second place in 75 Tory seats at the last election.
So, Cameron has to win significant concessions from Europe before the referendum can happen. With EU leaders’ attention focussed on economic crisis in Greece and migration from the Middle East, this is absolutely not a priority for them. The referendum, then, certainly won’t take place in the first half of next year, and may well be held in 2017. But by this point, the Institute of Directors warns Cameron today, it may come to be seen as a chance for a protest vote against an unpopular government. This adds to the chances, already quite high, that the Tories will preside over a No vote, something most leaders of British capitalism don’t want and which may well reignite the issue of Scottish independence.
The class significance of piggate
The extraordinary thing about piggate is not that Cameron took part in a bizarre ritual at an Oxford University dining club. It’s that a description of these events was included in a book written by a former Deputy Chairman of the Tory party and the former Political Editor of the Sunday Times, a book which was then serialised in the Daily Mail, while the Sun competed with front page stories of Cameron’s cocaine use.
These are all people and institutions from, nominally, the same Tory side. You can only guess at some of the tensions which clearly exist behind the scenes – for example in the relationship between Murdoch and Cameron. There’s certainly an element of personal vengeance – Michael Ashcroft assumed that the £8 million he had donated to the Tories would buy him a place in cabinet, perhaps as Defence Secretary, while he was only offered a lowly job as a Foreign Office whip.
More significant is the background against which piggate takes place, that of class divisions in the Tory party. The Tories were led, until the 1960s, by people with solid ruling class backgrounds. Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957-63, had attended Eton and Oxford, as had his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who gave up an earldom to take on the job. But when Home was defeated in the 1964 election by a Labour Party claiming to be modern and technocratic, a background of old-fashioned privilege came to be seen as a liability. The next leader of the Tory party was to be Edward Heath, the son of a small businessman, admitted to Oxford on a scholarship. Then came Margaret Thatcher, brought up in a flat above her father’s grocery shop before winning her scholarship to Oxford. Finally the Tories were led from 1990 to 1997 by John Major, whose father was a former trapeze artist and later ran a business selling garden gnomes. Major had grown up in Brixton after his father went bankrupt, in two rooms owned by a man he knew as Uncle Tom, but who turned out to be the son of Major’s own father and a married woman, conceived during an affair decades before.
These fairly humble backgrounds were useful in a party which claimed that hard work could get anyone to the top. Thatcher, in particular, expressed the contradictory situation of working-class and lower-middle-class Tories, who are ideologically wedded to capitalism but also realise that the really posh people hold them in complete contempt. Her rejection of the Tory grandees and their relaxed and cultivated style, her enthusiasm for attacks on workers and every kind of ignorant prejudice, delighted large parts of the Tories’ voter base, as well as benefiting British capitalists.
Eton and Oxford-educated Cameron, then, represents for the less posh bits of the Tory party a lurch fifty years into the past – and this is where we come to piggate and Ashcroft. Ashcroft is the son of a colonial civil servant and, as the Telegraph haughtily remarked last month, “an alumnus of the Mid Essex Technical College”. He had risen from these lower-middle-class origins to become a multi-millionaire. This is exactly how the Tories tell us we should live our lives, but it’s also clear that those of them born into money despise those who have acquired it, as when Alan Clark recorded in his diary the sneering comment that Michael Heseltine had “had to buy his own furniture” – as opposed to inheriting antiques. Ashcroft’s bitterness against Cameron isn’t just a personal matter, but the class anger of someone who believed in a capitalist meritocracy and then found out, seven million pounds later, that he hadn’t gone to the right schools in the first place.
The majority and the leadership
To these tensions in the Tory party, we need to add the government’s small majority and the coming leadership election. Cameron has a working majority of only 16, which can quite quickly be whittled down by bye-elections, of which there were 21 in the last parliament, six the result of MPs’ deaths. Once its majority falls below about ten, life becomes very difficult for a government which has to spend a lot of time ensuring that it doesn’t lose a Commons vote.
Finally, of course, all these tensions – the level of cuts, Europe, class divisions, tiny majority – are made enormously worse by Cameron’s announcement that he will no longer be Tory leader in 2020. His potential successors need to start making themselves distinctive in some way so as to carve out a constituency for the eventual vote. But they can’t have an open debate about policy, because that’s divisive. So we’ll continue to see the sniping and manoeuvring that has characterised Tory conference, where Osborne has tried to portray himself as Cameron’s natural successor, Johnson sniped over tax credits and May appealed to racists by attacking migrants.
None of these potential problems, of course, will necessarily bring the Tories down. The last thing we should do is wait for the government to self-destruct. But there are useful lessons to learn from the past. The release of Thatcher’s personal papers from 1982, for example, revealed that there was widespread opposition in the Tory party to going to war over the Falklands, which became one of Thatcher’s greatest successes and won her re-election in 1983 after an unpopular first term. Paul Mason has commented on archive documents showing that, four months into the miners’ strike of 1984-5, coal stocks were plummeting. As dockers also walked out on strike, Tory cabinet members had no confidence of final victory. Tory governments, and the capitalist ruling class in general, are often far more internally divided than they at first appear, and the current lot appear pretty divided to start with. That should give us confidence in the months to come.
As soon as I’d finished writing this piece, further divisions broke out between Tories over Theresa May’s speech on immigration. The Institute of Directors described itself as “astonished” by May’s “irresponsible” speech, Dan Hodges of the Telegraph tweeted comparing May’s announcement to Enoch Powell’s racist “rivers of blood” speech and James Kirkup, writing in the Telegraph, accused May of “fanning the flames of prejudice in a cynical attempt to become Conservative leader.”