Also known as the gutter press, the papers present the viewpoints of various segments of society, and give MPs an opportunity to write directly to them.
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Selling England by the Pound?
Inside the battle for the soul of the Tory Party
Inside the battle for the soul of the Tory Party
By Bruce Anderson
Selling England by the Pound? The title of English prog rock band Genesis' 1973 hit album, but for some Tories; a reference to the policies pursued by a Conservative leadership which has been largely out of touch with its members and the wider Conservative movement since November 1990 following the untimely removal of Margaret Thatcher from the premiership. For a huge swathe of the Conservative Party, that day is indeed one which will live in infamy, and the memory of which still lingers in the smoke filled rooms of the Palace of Westminster.
Fast forward to 2001, the wound of Thatcher's downfall seems as fresh as ever. By anyone's estimation the 1990s was the 'decadus horribilis' for the Tories, the party lurched from crisis to crisis - Back to Basics, Black Wednesday, Maastricht. The European question has long been seen as an unanswered problem, with the UK an historically reluctant partner in the EU project; so too for the Tories, who are broadly split in to a Eurosceptic majority with Europhiles and Europhobes both on the wings. The lines between these three positions are blurred, but the overrepresentation of so called 'Euro-tories' in the party's upper echelons and in Westminster compared to the ordinary party rank and file has now appeared to come to breaking point.
For all his faults as a Prime Minister - John Major held the party together just. But now the splits of Maastricht look to be a bit of a gentleman's disagreement compared to the events of the last week in the Tory Party, which have been uniquely vicious in their tone, content and personal barbs. It's true that William Croft shares very few character attributes with John Major, where the former PM was mocked as the grey man, the new Tory Leader is a genuine whirlwind of energy and movement. But Croft is making some of the same mistakes as Mr Major - trying to be all things to all men. This isn't the strategy that a conviction politician should hold, and Croft is definitely trying to portray himself as the principled alternative to Blairite spin. But no one can deny that the confusion coming out of Central Office on the question of the Euro is fast shaping up to be a proxy war for control of the Tory Party's ideological soul.
Enter Mrs Cosette Beauvais-Becker, dowdy provincial extremist to her foes and principled populist to her friends. In a leadership election that was supposed to be a home run for William Croft, CBB (as she is known as) rallied the party faithful, and ran Croft damned close for the leadership. Runner-up, loser, wham bam, thank you ma'am; you'd be forgiven for thinking that'd be the end of it. Mrs Beauvais-Becker has for all intents and purposes managed to continue the momentum of her campaign. I spoke to a close ally, who told me:"... so far the leadership deludes themselves to think that the grassroots is actually backing them and strongly supporting their agenda. Cosette ran a rather fiery campaign, a bit too fiery, she has her flaws but one thing is certain, for all her faults, she has captured the zeitgeist and the leadership is refusing to get it".
The confusion over William Croft's position on a referendum for Euro adoption versus the Hague position of completely ruling it out for the next two Parliaments is almost immaterial to this wider battle. At worst it was a communications gaffe, which Labour have gleefully rubbed their hands at. But what it has done is expose the simmering tensions that the Tories have laboured under for over ten years. Mr Croft is the undoubted Leader of the Party, but whether he is actually in control is another matter, and if he's going to rely on the trappings of office to keep right wing backbenchers in line then he could find his political capital diminished. A nasty briefing war yesterday didn't help matters, both sides looked utterly petulant. It's not quite as simple to say that CBB's position as flagbearer of the Europhobe right makes her the philosophical guardian of the Tory conscience, but the leadership must also realise that tacitly allowing Europhile Shadow Cabinet Ministers to refer to her and allies in the same terms as the National Front or BNP will only add fuel to the fire.
I spoke to a right-wing grandee, an old friend, yesterday on confidential terms:"As Labour have ruled out the Euro for now, the only risk of adopting the Euro as our currency comes from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet. It needs to be put to a vote at conference so the party membership can reject the policy, which hopefully they will. For a leader who is committed to democracy the Conservative leadership must accept the will of the Conservative Membership. It isn’t enough to say that the members voted for Mr Croft and therefore this policy as there was many policies on offer. Mr Croft did not win a huge majority of support - it was a narrow win, which, following the same logic, means that there is almost as many member who oppose it than those who support it. Mr Hague minced about the party, now Mr Croft and his supporters strut about as if this policy has massive amount of support. We’ve had enough mincing and strutting within the Conservative Party. The membership need to have a say on this policy - and the Conservative Party leadership should not propose or support any legislation or motions until the Membership have had their say."
There's no easy fix to all of this, but it's definitely not terminal yet. Croft should proceed with extreme caution when it comes to internal party democracy, conference resolutions and votes on policy are a very new thing, started by William Hague. He may find that if he puts these questions to his members, they won't give him the answer that he likes - once the association faithful, who are firmly right of centre, start to get a taste for having a say - then Mrs Beauvais-Becker might find herself in the Shadow Cabinet after all. But maybe the real question is whether he has any choice now? That's something that William's advisers will have to look at closely. Ultimately this debacle over the Euro has been a public relations cock up, but Croft still has the overwhelming support of the party machinery and his MPs. I spoke to a senior Shadow Cabinet Minister who summed up the frustration at the CBB insurgency:The pound is under threat on two different fronts - from those in Labour who hide behind flimsy tests as they wait for an opportunity to sneak the Euro through and from those Beauvais-Becker backers within the Conservative Party who are too cowardly to put the issue to the people. The former are scared because they know the people will reject the Euro and the latter are scared because they know they’ll cease to be relevant in the Conservatives once the issue is settled.
Whilst the battle for the ideological soul of the country is ongoing, there's a great danger that the rest of the country will just switch off to yet more Tory dramatics. My view is that Mr Croft needs to iron out the idiosyncrasies of his leadership and fast - he can ill afford to be seen as a fence sitter or a referee, it has already made him look weak. As for Cosette Beauvais-Becker, Conservative members might agree with her hard right views, but if she threatens the ability of the party through a refusal to engage with the leadership, or 'Tory Taliban' tactics, then she too will find herself a busted flush. For the sake of the country, who have had enough of the sleazy, politically correct, elitist New Labour project -the Spectator hopes the Tories pull themselves together before it's too late.