The Myth of "Decent Tories"

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, commentators have revelled in the idea that this left a vacant space in the political centre ground, waiting to be occupied by the right party.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, various commentators and journalists have revelled in the idea that this left a vacant space in the political centre ground, waiting to be occupied by the right party. Indeed, veneration of this supposed centrist wonderland has led to a belief that ‘soft’ or moderate Conservative MPs are worthy of praise for taking principled stands against the alleged extremes of our times, on both the left and the right. Not only is this stance intellectually dishonest, it’s genuinely concerning in an era where the Tories are technically still in power. Adoration and celebration of any element of the Conservatives or any individual within it, no matter how ‘woke’, ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’, suggests the uneasy notion that some MPs are not culpable for their party’s actions. It is true that a handful of Tories are capable of spouting a few sensible platitudes and enacting (by design?) ineffectual rebellions against their own party, but the leap to declaring them moderate centrists is extraordinary if one considers the reality of the situation. The Tories have been pursuing a callous and destructive right-wing economic agenda for the last 7 years of being in power; supposedly outspoken individuals in the party have not significantly challenged the political choice of austerity in any meaningful way.

Anna Soubry, once described as “today’s leading centre-ground politician” by journalist Jane Merrick, is one such MP lauded as a “moderate” Tory. Outspoken in favour of immigration and critical of other Tories for their part in the dishonest ‘Leave’ campaign. And yet, Soubry’s voting record contrasts starkly with her own rhetoric, voting with the rest of the Tory colleagues “on the vast majority of issues,” including against protecting the residential rights of EU citizen and and their family member lawfully residing in the UK.

Soubry misrepresenting herself in this way works because she can gain traction by expressing her sympathies and more liberal opinions on social media and in the press. It seems that Soubry’s ultimately empty words are remembered long after her actual voting record on related issues, which is predictably abysmal. Time and again, Soubry’s self-assertion of being a moderate voice, assisted by the veneration from her newfound admirers, is swiftly undermined by her own actions. For instance, she was also praised for visiting a refugee camp, but shortly thereafter voted against the scheme to accommodate lone child refugees in the UK. One does not have to look far to discover Soubry is a loyal Tory MP through and through. Yet the occasional lip service paid to moderation and rebellion seems to do her more favours in the eyes of her non-Tory supporters than any actual substantive break with her party ever could. This, combined with the liberal obsession with placing anti-Brexit issues ahead of all other domestic matters, has cemented a strange, hollow idolisation of Soubry in the minds of a few. Soubry’s run-of-the-mill Tory voting record exemplifies the fraudulence of her claim to be a maverick in her own party, à la John McCain for the Republicans, and invalidates her claim to hold the Conservative government to account better than Corbyn.

Another name that has bizarrely cropped up since the EU referendum is ‘soft’ Tory Ken Clarke, the leading light of the party’s dying One Nation wing. As a vocal opponent of Brexit, Clarke has found his way into the good books of liberal commentators such as Polly Toynbee, who described him as “magnificent” in his delivery of a speech where he spoke “for saving Britain.” Although Toynbee recognised that Clarke was in fact the architect of “brutal” austerity in the 1990s and the one who marketised the NHS under Thatcher, she nevertheless described him as “too good for [the Tories]” based on this one opinion. One could easily point out in response that rebelling against one’s own party in limited instances does not make Clarke “too good for them,” it makes him a complicit ally of his own party in the vast majority of instances, a fact so readily evident in the official records.

Has our politics been rendered so shallow that tiny, effectively meaningless rebellions against the hegemony of the party machine should be celebrated? Does Clarke’s love of the EU discount his well-affirmed love of British American Tobacco or his support for fox-hunting? Clarke served in the Cabinets of Thatcher, Major and Cameron. He is not “too good” for the Tories but evidently just as bad as the rest of them. Is the absence of a completely unwavering loyalty to one’s party all that is required to be considered above the rest of that party’s politics? Does Toynbee seriously believe that Clarke’s words suddenly negate the actions of a party that he has been part of for generations? In other words, does Clarke’s distaste for Brexit really excuse his active participation in Tory policies for thirty years? According to this reckless formula, the architects of austerity David Cameron and George Osborne should be lauded for their “magnificent” opposition to Brexit too. The absurdity of this position is clear.

In a similar vein to Clarke, another Tory MP, Heidi Allen became the most fleeting of commentariat darlings when she indicated her support public sector workers, tweeting on June 27 this year: “New DUP cash must surely mean funding will be urgently reviewed for [public] sector wages, schools, social care, [Universal] Credit across whole UK too?”. And yet, the very next day, Allen voted to maintain the 1% cap on public sector workers, along with the entirety of her parliamentary colleagues. Her rhetoric and actions follow a similar course to Soubry’s: one can see the lip service Allen paid to her constituents and to the media, the adoption of a ‘principled position’ in anticipation of a vote, and then the inevitable crash back to reality, as she toed her party’s line in the Commons. Allen has subsequently offered a series of excuses for not voting to lift the pay cap, but in the end this episode and the many others like it, exhibit either a willingness to deceive others with platitudes or an apparent unwillingness to follow through with one’s own personal convictions.

Centrism as a force is not always considered a real political space, which makes it all the more infuriating that some Tories are pushed as sensible moderates despite their dubious actions. Far from calls for the creation of a new party, a so-called centrist party in UK politics - the Liberal Democrats - already exists and they had a mediocre showing in the June 2017 General Election. Many that predicted Brexit would be at the heart of current debates are the same that laud Tories who suddenly grow a conscience, but conveniently forget to vote with it. It is a sign that the Overton window has shifted so far to the right during the last forty-odd years of neoliberalism in this country that slight deviations from status quo Tory opinions are commended. The notion that some of these Tories may be acting opportunistically or mindful of their personal legacy is one that is curiously absent from political debate.

These MPs are complicit in their party’s actions from the moment they run for election under the Conservative banner and excusing their behaviour disregards their party’s countless attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. The Tories declared their class war a long time ago; a few ‘moderate’ positions here and there do not and cannot excuse the mentality and actions of a wholly corrupt entity. Lauding such trivial intra-party grandstanding is dangerous because it humanises and legitimises the system itself. Commentators on UK politics, both amateur and professional, should remember that.

This disconnect between what ‘soft’ Tory politicians say and what they do can be summarised in a couple of choice quotes from Johnny Mercer, Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View: “I will persistently be a loud voice to remove public sector pay cap for frontline workers. But will not vote with this political game today,” he stated on the day he voted against removing the pay cap, and further said, “I will lobby hard to end the cap. But we have got to get the Queen’s Speech through. I won’t vote with Labour.” In other words, he is literally willing to say he will “lobby hard to end the public sector pay cap” but when the opportunity is right in front of him, party comes first. And therein lies the problem.