Last night’s purge of 21 Tory rebels was perhaps inevitable, sad as it is that the living legend Kenneth Clarke is no longer a Conservative MP. Among the other members of the Tory ‘rebel alliance’, to use the cringeworthy name given to the party’s last few Remainers (I prefer ‘Athenians’, as a counter to the ERG’s ‘Spartans’, but I don’t imagine it will catch on) are Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart. All have now lost the whip, after voting against the Government.
Some are happy to see them go – Guido’s Tom Harwood, for instance, wondered how Churchill’s grandson could be such a ‘leftie’, while others have accused Rory Stewart of being part of an effete, out-of-touch elite.
Funny how Churchill's grandson is such a leftie.
In a beautiful mirroring, Attlee's grandson is a Tory peer.
— Tom Harwood (@tomhfh) September 3, 2019
Certainly Stewart is popular among Twitter users, which is generally a bad sign, but there’s something sad and unsettling about a cull that reeks of a purity drive – something itself very un-conservative and which we normally associate with the Left.
Stewart describes his political philosophy as “limited government, respect for individual rights, prudence at home, restraint abroad, love of tradition, love of country”. Is that less authentically conservative than Liz Truss’s “Uber-riding, Airbnb’ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”? The Conservative Party, Stewart has pointed out, has for two centuries been a coalition of people with different views of the world. But perhaps no longer.
As for Soames being a ‘leftie’, his political record is as down-the-line Tory as is possible, having rebelled against his party on just three occasions during his parliamentary career of 36 years. Certainly, his conservative credentials seem stronger than the prime minister’s. In his previous – more plausible – persona as fun-loving liberal London mayor, Boris often spoke in favour of an immigration amnesty, which would only help make the city a more colourful and prosperous place. Soames, in contrast, co-chaired the Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration, alongside Frank Field.
Mass migration is an obviously un-conservative policy, bringing about radical change with uncertain outcomes – the same argument, in fact, that some Conservatives made against leaving the EU.
Some Brexiteers accuse Stewart and Soames of being driven by snobbery and contempt for ‘the people’, but there are good conservative arguments for Remain, or at least for a form of Brexit as closely aligned to the EU as possible. The EU prevents interventionist policies, for one thing, which is why Jeremy Corbyn has always hated it. The Owen Joneses of this world cannot legally get the policies they want while we’re in the EU, and their conditional support for membership is largely driven by hostility to ethno-nationalism, and the principles of internationalism, rather than any love for that institution.
The I-word is crucial here. Conservatives believe in institutions, which form the backbone of civil society and order; the whole point of many post-war Europe-wide institutions was that they would make the continent more like Britain in its adherence to the rule of law, something many argue has been quite successful.
There is also the wider conservative argument that, however bad things are, they can always get worse. During the referendum campaign I began to wonder if we were starting to resemble those excitable belle epoque-era central European nationalists who believed that, once they got rid of the Habsburgs, everything would be OK. You might think that Juncker and co are bad, but there is always something more terrible around the corner.
Brexiteers, in contrast, began to show a strong revolutionary streak as the referendum progressed. Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have been compared to Maoists, intent on revolution within government, while in their historical references Leavers are far more likely to identify with Parliamentarians than the more obviously conservative royalists (and no, I’m not going to get drawn into Civil War analogies).
Likewise, as the battle went on we began to hear more talk of ‘the people’, a phrase used once again this week by Andrea Leadsom:
The highest authority in the UK is the People. They voted to leave the EU. Parliament must obey that instruction.
— Andrea Leadsom MP (@andrealeadsom) September 2, 2019
As a conservative, I’d say that pretty much everything in history with ‘the people’ in its title has been complete excrement, from the People’s Crusade of the 11th century to the various People’s Republics of the 20th century. Invoking ‘The People’ is generally the sort of rhetoric associated with charlatans and fanatics like Jean-Paul Marat, idealists who inevitably leave a pile of bodies when their unachievable goals fail to materialise.
That’s not the language of conservatism. In contrast, whether one agrees with them or not, Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart are very much conservatives and Tories, which makes their position all the more poignant.
Where do they go from here?