Can David Cameron see off the Tory troublemakers?

In November 1990, Conservative MPs brought to an end the reign of Margaret Thatcher – and, as some still see it, their party has never been the same since.

There was an obvious rationale to what they did: though she had led them to three general election victories, she had become an electoral liability, so disliked and mistrusted that even her closest former colleagues now spoke out against her. But when she was toppled, a poison seemed to enter the Conservative soul: from thereon in, it seemed, the party had an insatiable taste for faction fighting and plotting against its leaders, an obsession with Europe – and a strange underlying self-loathing, perhaps born of a sudden lack of self-confidence.

The last point is highlighted in author and columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft's brilliant modern history of the Conservatives, The Strange Death of Tory England. "In one light," he writes, "the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher could be seen as a supreme display of Tory toughness, but that was not the whole story." He recounts the story of a Tory MP talking about her downfall with the writer and Thatcher-confidant Paul Johnson, and expressing his dismay thus: "I'm afraid it means we've become a party of cowards."

"And shits," replied Johnson.

"No," said the MP. "We've always been that."

History does not record the MP's identity – but whoever he was, the following years would arguably prove him right, in both senses. John Major's turbulent time in office speaks for itself. Between 1997 and 2005, the Conservative party got through four leaders, often suggesting it was much more comfortable with regicide than thinking about why it suddenly seemed to be on the wrong side of history. But having been stabilised by the caretaker leadership of Michael Howard and then electing David Cameron, it seemed to belatedly understand the need to comprehensively reinvent itself, cut down on the in-fighting, "stop banging on about Europe" and get back to being a party of power.

When Cameron successfully ran for the leadership, his slogan was "Change to win" – but he did not quite manage that feat. Two-and-a-half years after the Conservatives missed outright victory election in 2010, the Tories seem to be in danger of resuming their old habits. With Cameron's encouragement, their obsession with Europe has been revived, and then some. There is talk of plots against the leadership, and Conservative factions seem to multiply by the week. Worse still, with their proposed changes to constituency boundaries having been scuppered by the dastardly Lib Dems, there is a rising sense that the best they can hope for at the next election is a repeat of the hellishly uncertain outcome of 2010.

Were he to update The Strange Death, Wheatcroft tells me, the central idea of Tory decline would still be present and correct. "In the 1990s," he says, "they abandoned even the pretence of loyalty and unity, and just began hacking each other apart. In a way, it's remarkable they have recovered from where they were in the mid-90s, to be in government at all." He credits them with an often overlooked achievement: getting a higher share of the popular vote in 2010 than the supposedly triumphant Tony Blair managed in 2005. But in the context of their current problems, he suggests that things hardly look glowing.

"There's a flavour of a doomed garrison about them," he says. "Even though they're in office, they're full of irrational hatreds. And they seem to have lost their old instinct for what kind of party to be: are they a moderate, Christian Democrat-type party? Or are they a party that yearns to be Ukip?"

On Tuesday, the House of Commons will vote on the proposals for same-sex marriage that Cameron has decided to talk up as a symbol of whether his "modernisation" project still amounts to anything. On Sunday, he was visited at Downing Street by a deputation of outraged senior Tory activists, and up to half his MPs – including as many as four members of the cabinet – are expected to oppose the measure, leaving it dependent on Labour and Lib Dem support.

Among the more elevated protests against the plans is a report co-authored by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond, the policy thinker who was once celebrated as one of Cameron's intellectual gurus, thanks to the school of thought he called "Red Tory". When he launched his thinktank ResPublica, Blond was joined by Cameron; at around the same time, Cameron quoted Blond in at least one of his speeches, and credited his ideas with providing some of the intellectual substance for that long-faded notion, the "big society".

But no more. In modern Tory politics, it seems, friendships might not last for long, and reputations can quickly wax and wane. As Blond sees it, Cameron has taken the wrong path in two ways: carrying on the zealous free-marketry that defined the Tories under Thatcher, and embracing the metropolitan liberalism of New Labour, as evidenced by Tuesday's vote in the Commons. While doing so, Blond suggests, he has lost any sense of a coherent project, and fomented endless Tory dissent. "By failing to lead intellectually, Cameron risks not leading at all," he says. "He's failed to develop on the initial insights that he had, and he hasn't come up with principles that people could unify around. So of course there's disunity. If you don't have a coherent programme at the top, you're going to get division at the bottom."

Conservative politics did not used to be like this. There were regular outbreaks of internal strife, for sure. But until the arrival of Thatcher, the Tories were a party of power: pragmatic, flexible, supremely confident – and rarely moved to the extent of passion by much more than vague patriotism and a sense of their own importance. The party-at-large was more of a giant social club than a political organisation, and the people at the top often cleaved to the mindset beautifully captured by Arthur Balfour, the Tory prime minister between 1902 and 1905: "Nothing matters very much, and most things don't matter at all."

For most of the past century, it was Labour that was most often distracted by internal strife, something that prompted the senior party figure and political diarist Richard Crossman to bemoan the different ways that each of the titans of British politics responded to political difficulties. "When the Tories are in trouble," he wrote in 1956, "they bunch together and cogger up. When we get into trouble, we start blaming each other and rushing to the press to tell them all the terrible things that somebody else has done."

Were Crossman alive six decades on, he would presumably laugh like a horse at how much things have changed. For the moment at least, Labour is strangely quiet and apparently united. Even though they are in power, it's the Tories who are riven by factional divisions, and prone to huge bust-ups. Whatever is happening, there is little sign of anyone wanting to "cogger up", and lots of examples of people rushing to the newspapers – or, rather, Twitter and the fantastically influential website ConservativeHome – to tell tales, and worse.

Cameron's recent promise of an in/out referendum on the EU was presumably meant to calm Tory nerves, but last week brought claims that a rebellious hardcore of Conservatives are toying with two big ideas: a no-confidence motion in Cameron if the party's standing hasn't materially improved by the summer of 2014, and a more immediate demand for the sacking of chancellor George Osborne if March's budget fails to work any economic magic.

By way of a strange punchline to the story, there is also the whirl of whispers surrounding Adam Afriyie, the backbench MP whom very few people had heard of, until he was suddenly being talked up as someone who might be a "stalking horse" candidate prepared to topple the prime minister, a serious prospect for the leadership, or a glorious example of delusions of grandeur. "The plot is all completely mad, but No 10 really need to listen," said one anxious MP quoted in the Daily Telegraph. "I'm afraid they simply don't understand their backbenchers. What is most significant is that some people feel the need to do this." That's pretty much spot on, though it ignores the figure who must surely haunt Cameron like a tousle-headed ghost, and whose current absence from parliament makes his position all the more interesting: Boris Johnson, whose last big public intervention was an apparently harsh critique of Osborne's approach to the economy.

Rather than being a unifying, broad-church kind of leader, Cameron has turned out to be a divisive figure, widely disliked among some MPs for his supposedly haughty style of party management – and mistrusted because of his failure to bring the Conservatives an outright majority. Moreover, internal dissent now has a habit of spilling out thanks to modern means of communication, and the fact that the political right were much earlier adopters of the web and social media than the left: among their other talents, modern Tories are Olympic-standard tweeters, bloggers and Facebook-ists, and still much better at online manoeuvring than Labour people.

There are also Conservative factions and tendencies ("ginger groups", they used to be called) aplenty, a sure sign of a party that is at risk of losing any coherent sense of itself. The long-standing Cornerstone Group has a strapline that reads "Faith, flag and family", and has weekly meetings with the No Turning Back Group (Thatcherites), and the 92 Group, a very long-standing rightwing faction so named because they used to meet at 92 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea – which, as devotees of Tory trivia may know, was a house that belonged to the late Tory politician Sir Patrick Henry Bligh Wall.

Just along from them are the newly formed Conservative Voice, who seem to want to re-acquaint the Tories with blue-collar voters, and who educate their people via what their website calls a "campaign gym". There is also the Free Enterprise Group (more Thatcherites), the Eurosceptic Fresh Start Group and the Cameron-supporting 301 group, named after the number of MPs who would have been needed for a Tory majority in 2015, had the Lib Dems not ratted on them and killed the boundary changes that would have substantially increased the chances of a Tory win. For the sake of thoroughness, we should also include Bright Blue, a self-styled "grassroots movement" that "wants the Conservative party to keep on modernising", and seems to be a clearing-house for young would-be Cameroons.

Most important, perhaps, is the aforementioned Conservative Home, the website-cum-movement whose figurehead is Tim Montgomerie, the man who briefly served under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership as his chief of staff, before going on to position himself as the voice of Tory activists. It may be some measure of the febrile state of Tory politics that Montgomerie is one of the most influential Conservative voices, who torments the leadership on a regular basis. Yesterday, he was orating from the pages of the Times, arguing that the Tories were in a "fundamentally unhealthy" state, that Cameron's modernisation project "has been conducted casually", and that the prime minister's political machine "has the attention span of a goldfish".

Montgomerie is also a high-profile supporter of Johnson, whose most notable contributions to last year's Tory party conference were a frenzied "Boris rally", and a new website that crystallised his view of the correct Tory path, with its url reminiscent of the political satire The Thick of It: What Cameron thinks of Montgomerie is not a matter of record, though his constant manoeuvrings may bring to mind what Lyndon B Johnson famously said of advisers to President Kennedy: "They may be just as intelligent as you say. But I'd feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff."

All this makes for an unstable, often rancourous atmosphere. It means that any hot Tory issue – gay marriage, Europe, the government's economic direction – tends to be the subject of pamphlets, meetings, essays, angry blogs and oceans of tweets. To be fair to the Tories, their party's political culture is brimming with ideas and passion: compared with the deathly dull events staged by Labour and the Lib Dems, their conference last year was by far and away the most intellectually stimulating and entertaining. But the question demands to be asked: what kind of future does this internal bickering suggest?

Yesterday, I spoke at length to one senior cabinet minister and Cameron ally. He warned against reading too much ideological substance into the internal Tory factions: "They seem to me to be grouped around individuals, and the principle division is between people who are, to a lesser or greater extent, pro-Cameron and the government, and those who are anti-him." They range, he continued, from people who have "positions of principle" to those "who have personal reasons for disliking the government, some of whom are very passionate".

He made comparisons to the internal Labour dissent that eventually did for Blair, which prompted an obvious enough question: why is Cameron facing such a restive party so soon into his first term? "The first thing is, because we didn't win," he replies. Cameron, he says, was blamed for the simple existence of the coalition and an election result that has hardened a kind of betrayal myth held dear by more hard-bitten Tories: "The idea that if he'd fought a better campaign, and he'd been a truer Tory, we could have been in a position where we could have indulged ourselves."

Is all the plotting and faction-fighting a worry? "It's important to be neither complacently dismissive of it – 'Oh, it happens all the time' – nor to panic or obsess. The most important thing is to try to appreciate why it's arisen and what can be done about it." Courtesy and engagement, he says, were always important, but at the same time, "you cannot reason someone out of a position which they haven't reasoned themselves into. And lots of people hold the view they do about David and the rest of us because the instinct and emotion come first and the intellectual justification comes afterwards."

The scale of dissent over gay marriage, he agrees, is a problem. "It's not a good look to have a party arguing among itself. And it's not a good look if some of the people arguing, and delivering letters, are delivering letters on this. If you have a Labour government, and you have a group of people handing letters into the prime minister – it might be to, say, save nurseries – now, you might say: 'Well, this is an example of a sentimental lack of reality at a time of economic pain,' but at least you don't think: 'The bastards.' Whereas, there is a section of the population that see this, and thinks: 'The one thing they'll give up their weekend for is to say that gay people shouldn't get married.'

"Without wanting to be Pollyanna-ish about it," he continues, "if you have a group of people who just don't like you, saying that you simply don't deserve to be prime minister, when this issue passes, they'll just find another one." Dissent and periodic turbulence, then, would go on – but, he reckons, there will be no leadership plots this side of the next election.

We shall see. At the moment, the Conservative party occasionally brings to mind the Labour party of the 1980s, which was similarly faction-ridden, very ideological and full of feuds that were often as much personal as political. Among the Tories' current opponents, then, there is a pronounced tendency to assume that the forces of history will once against assert themselves, Cameron's time in government will be no more than a blip, and Labour will soon be back in office.

But that ignores some things about the Tories that remain firmly in place. First, the people in charge are a lot cleverer than some people would like to think. Second, they remain the party of the powerful, backed not just by huge economic interests, but most of the press, who may sometimes make Cameron's life more difficult than he would prefer, but will come running once the next election comes into view. This strange mixture of strife and power, then, may yet continue – in which case, just wait until that Europe referendum, when all the Tories' post-Thatcher tensions may well explode, making their current woes look like an unimaginable period of love and peace.

Powered by article was written by John Harris, for The Guardian on Monday 4th February 2013 19.12 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Guillaume Paumier