When the Tories were slowly imploding in the run up to our first landslide victory in 1997, former minister Alan Clark called me to bemoan his party’s fate.
As my diaries show, this fellow diarist phoned me rather a lot, more than his party whips and apparatchiks appreciated. He loved ‘the game,’ as he called it. He loved gossip. And he loved telling me how bad things were and how well we – his enemy – were doing.
On this particular occasion, he said that the problem was that the Tories now hated each other more than they hated Labour. It was an interesting insight, and one which helped us then pile on the agony for the Tories as their divisions, particularly over Europe, deepened.
Last night I was reminded of this by someone who put a message on my Facebook page that Labour was now in the same state, that we hated each other more than we hated the Tories. But whereas Alan Clark was right, my Facebook friend is wrong.
There are always disagreements and personality clashes within any major organisation. Why should a political party be different to a bank, an office, a newsroom, a football team, a charity?
But hatred is a strong word. I think Alan’s definition of the strength of feeling back then did indeed define many of the relationships at all levels of the Tory Party. It defined what mainstream members of the Labour Party felt about the hard left in the days of Militant, and what Militant felt about us in spades. But it does not actually define Labour today.
Now hatred is not a terribly good or edifying thing anyway, but in so far as the vast bulk of Labour activists have it within them, I have no doubt much more of it is felt for the Tories than for anyone in their own ranks. And that feeling was growing, and turning itself into greater support and activism, as the prospect of a Tory government neared, both in terms of polls and, now in the fifth year of the Parliament, in terms of timing.
I don’t hate David Cameron. I just don’t think he would be a very good Prime Minister. I don’t think his party has changed fundamentally from the one rejected by the public. I don’t think he has the strength in depth required for a government. I don’t think he has done the policy and strategic work needed. I think he thinks the Tories are born to rule, it is their turn, his time, and that’s that. And I think his policy agenda, in so far as he has one, is one aimed at helping those at the top, those from his own kind of background and despite all the tieless photocalls and the ‘fings just ain’t right’ elf’n’safety, get down with the peoplespeak, he is a pretty traditional Tory toff.
That sense was gaining wider traction, and was one of the reasons he was not pulling away in the polls, despite all the obvious economic and political advantages the Tories have, and despite all the money being thrown from Belize to help them. It was one of the reasons morale among Labour supporters was beginning to rise, and why there seems to be so much anger, whatever people feel about Gordon Brown, about the move against him yesterday. The timing was spectacularly bad.
No leader ever commands total support. True. Gordon is not the most popular or charismatic leader in the world. True. There are differences of opinion over the PBR, and the strategy Labour should adopt for the election. Clearly. And those who say that Gordon knows all about gunning for the leader, and making life more difficult than it might otherwise have been for those working for the leader, might also have a point.
But none of it should get in the way of united and determined efforts in answering the basic question – would you rather have Brown or Cameron as PM?
If Cabinet ministers want him to go, they should tell him. If he doesn’t think he should, they should then decide whether they want to continue, and he should decide whether he wants to keep them. If an MP thinks he is such a liability they cannot serve under him, they should think about giving up their seat. But above all, if people have nothing useful to say, best to say nothing.
It is a dictum by which, I am glad to say, Alan Clark never lived. He and many other Tories at the time. It is one of the reasons he never quite made it as high as he thought his talents should have taken him. And why the Tories have been out of power for so long.