Westminster Watch

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: July 17, 2017 Last modified: July 17, 2017

There is a battle royale going on within the Parliamentary Conservative party. The killing zone, however, is largely outwith the public eye – with Tories competing for the chairs of various select committees.

Johnny Mercer (pictured), for example, is challenging Julian Lewis for stewardship of defence, a stand-off between a relatively new boy Remainer against the old guard. A similar contest is being played out between Tom Turgenhat, like Mercer another former soldier and Remainer, against Crispin Blunt, for the foreign affairs committee supremacy. And on the Treasury committee, there is a similar battle between Nicky Morgan and arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Normally such competitions would be seen by many as just spats within the Westminster ‘bubble’. In reality, it is a civil war by proxy for dominance at a time when most Tories don’t believe that Theresa May can lead their party into another general election, whenever that might happen. As veteran broadcaster Adam Boulton said, this is “a route to prominence that does not involve junior ministerial bag-carrying.”

While Labour has its own internal problems due to new intakes and memberships, the problems of the Tories are much more intense, although below the radar in much of the media. Two-thirds of Tory MPs have been elected since 2010 and they are not going to rely on their party’s traditional way of dealing with lame duck leaders or premiers by “calling in the men with grey suits”. The Remain-Brexit split exacerbates that. The Tory new bloods demand a solution – only the timing is a matter for debate – and they want to reap future rewards in terms of advancement in whatever regime emerges.

Mrs May has, if anything, made it worse by calling on rival parties to “contribute and not just criticise”, clearly signalling that she has finally realised that her sordid deal with the DUP cannot guarantee her survival for the rest of the “bung parliament.” First Secretary of State, Damian Green, said it was a “grown-up way of doing politics”, which only shows that he has not progressed much farther than a creche.

It was hard to keep a straight face when struggling Downing Street spin doctors also claimed it was a mature approach that maintains a commitment to taking on big, difficult and complex challenges; not just Brexit but reform of social care, too.

May’s desperate appeal is an explicit acknowledgement of her fragility after an election which robbed her of both her majority and her authority, both inside her own party and amongst the wider electorate. Labour says Mrs May’s speech proves the Conservatives have “completely run out of ideas” and were reduced to “beggin”” for policy proposals from them.

Ministers loyal to Mrs May have dismissed reports of plots to remove her as drink-fuelled “gossip”. Laugh- ably, Justice Secretary David Lidington said it was the product of “too much sun and too much warm Prosecco”. He said summer drinks parties produced “gossipy stories” and that the public wanted the PM to get on with her job. Really?

Labour remains on an election footing, with Corbyn saying he hopes for a fresh poll in September. At the Durham Miners’ Gala, Corbyn again insisted that Labour is a “government-in-waiting” which could end austerity and scrap both the cap on public sector pay rises and student tuition fees. But he warned members that will only happen if the party can stay united.

With the Tories in such genuine turmoil, this is not the time for Labour to indulge in more in-fighting. New party chairman Ian Lavery, hardly a Blairite, now says that he doesn’t see the “de-selection” of MPs critical of Corbyn “as the way forward”. Let’s hope he means it, given that Lavery himself had suggested that Labour “might be too broad a church”.

What is needed to beat the Tories, whenever the opportunity arises, is a church as broad as Durham cathedral. And with the leadership, shadow cabinet, backbench MPs and grassroots members all singing from the same hymn sheet.

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune