“They’re all mad, swivel-eyed loons”: a top Tory on the Tories

by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2013

Conservative Party logoHere’s the remark attributed to ‘a member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle’ according to the Telegraph:

“There’s really no problem,” the Conservative figure said about the parliamentary turmoil. “The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad swivel-eyed loons.”

There is an obvious point here (and it’s the reason why whoever said it will soon be resigned): don’t diss your own supporters. ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,’ was Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. It was as much a statement of survival as it was a declaration of loyalty.

But beyond that, the greatest sin committed here (as with any gaffe) is that it contains a substantial slab of truth. The Tory party is consumed by two issues — same-sex marriage and Europe — which matter greatly to them and much less so to most voters.

In the case of same-sex marriage, poll after poll shows most voters supportive. And in the case of Europe, where the Tories are closer to pubic opinion, the ferocity of their opposition is more likely to bemuse than inspire.

As I pointed out here, the party has spent a fortnight banging on and on about Europe at a time when the economic news is (relatively speaking) the best since the Coalition came to power. When you spend your time talking only about an issue that most voters rank low down their priorities and neglect the issue that will decide the next election… well, that’s the definition of obsession.

Many a wag on Twitter has been pointing out that all party activists are by definition “loons”. True enough. Tim Farron labelled Lib Dems “nutters” (affectionately) a few months ago: who else goes and delivers leaflets and knocks on strangers’ doors in all weather?

But there’s a more serious point where the Tories are concerned — after all, what does being a member of the Tory party actually mean? No say in policy-making, no voice at party conferences, increasingly no right to choose your own local candidate.

Whatever complaints Lib Dems may have about our internal party democracy (and yes, the leadership ignored members on secret courts), this much can be said: at least we still have the right to resign our membership in protest from the conference floor. You wouldn’t have even the chance to do that in the Tory party.

Membership is declining in all parties. As I wrote a few weeks ago:

The old political tribes are fragmenting. There are barely 350,000 card-carrying members of the main three parties today: Labour c.190,000 members, the Tories c.130,000, and the Lib Dems c.40,000. That’s one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s in the old and certain days of two-party politics. The nucleus that remain as dues-paying members today are disproportionately the most zealous, the most convinced; it’s unsurprising they’re finding it hard to come to terms with the politics of compromise, the new normal. …

Frustration: that’s what happens when ideologues bump up against the realisation their ideology doesn’t command majority support. And frustration is never a constructive catalyst. It’s usually irrational — and that’s just how the Tory party is reacting.

The less power you give party members, the more irresponsible their dwindling numbers become. As the Tory party is finding out, the hard way.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.