Right now, the Conservative Party in Britain and the Republican Party in the United States have even more in common than usual. Both seem intent on tearing themselves apart.
The circumstances are quite different, of course. For a start, the Conservatives are in government and the Republicans are in opposition. But in each case the party’s warring factions are locked in mortal combat for what they see as the party’s soul. And immigration, directly or indirectly, is the main cause of both schisms.
With the Tories it is supposed to be about the erosion of Britain’s loss of sovereignty. Maybe so, but the migrant crisis has brought a comprehendible and very graphic dimension to the antipathy of the European Union being peddled by the ‘outers’. Alone, sovereignty, a complex and relative term, might not be enough to sway British voters. But television pictures showing immigrants – or ‘refugees’ if you insist – clambering over the rocks on Greek beaches demonstrably would, and apparently is. And millions more are on the way, trumpets the right-wing press.
In America, Donald Trump, who now seems bound to be the Republican standard-bearer in the presidential election, has made keeping Mexican immigrants out by building 1000-mile wall along the border, his main policy. It is the only policy he has embraced, or at least is the only one that anybody remembers. He has, it is true, referred in his unwritten manifesto to renegotiating trade agreements to stop American jobs from going abroad, but even that involves building protective walls, just not in the physical sense.
For the past three days in London, the corridors of Westminster – or, more likely, over a weekend, the taprooms in the shires – have been abuzz over the resignation from government of Ian Duncan Smith, the works and pensions minister, ostensibly because of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s cuts to disability payments in the recent budget. The real reason, most pundits believe, is that Duncan Smith wishes to be free to campaign against EU membership, which he has long opposed. An even more plausible reason is that he personally can’t stand the prime minister and even less so the chancellor, and has only been waiting for an appropriate excuse to stick it to them.
Since readers of this column know that I am profoundly in favour of Britain staying in Europe, some of you may consider my objectivity somewhat suspect, but I think David Cameron should have come down hard on the EU ‘rebels’. The free vote that he granted to Tory members of parliament, including cabinet ministers, was a mistake. It was at least an arguable mistake, but not now.
Free parliamentary votes, in my view, should be confined to moral issues, such as capital punishment or abortion rights. The arguments for and against Britain staying in the EU are for the most part based on legal and political niceties. There are no profound moral or ethical dimensions to the issue. The decision to stay in or leave the EU is solely about whether it is in Britain’s political and economic interests.
Mr. Cameron, after negotiating the ‘New Deal’ governing Britain’s relationship with Europe, should have promptly returned home to tell his cabinet that, in his judgement, it was the best deal that could possibly be hoped for, and that anyone who thought otherwise should resign from the government immediately.
As it is, those who did indeed think otherwise have been left free to campaign against the government they were appointed to serve and to which, if a long-standing political convention were to be observed, they owed loyalty under the rubric of collective responsibility.
Who are these dissidents, anyway? Round up the usual compulsive right-wing malcontents, mainly from the Tory back-benches; actually, the same people who recently voted to maintain Sunday trading restrictions. Some of them still yearn for Empire. A few probably belong to the Flat Earth Society.
The front-bench rebels include the aforementioned Duncan Smith, who throughout his tenure as minister has said not a dicky-bird to air his concerns about the government’s austerity programme, and indeed has spoken in their support. The government has little to fear from the man himself – as party leader a few years back he proved to be a complete nincompoop – but his leaving has stirred the political pot. He joins Boris Johnson, London’s mayor (for the next few weeks) and Mr. Cameron’s putative rival and heir. Boris, nothing if not an opportunist, has been itching for an excuse to get behind a market stall and to display his prime ministerial wares. Michael Gove, the Justice Minister, has signed up for the ‘out’ campaign, probably because he is still smarting from his abrupt removal as Secretary of Education last year. He was not, I admit, bad in that job, but few people I know would trust him with their grandmother’s shopping basket.
There are strange bed-fellows in this venture, most prominently the United Kingdom Independence Party, led by the oleaginous and fatuous Nigel Farage. The other fellow-travellers are various fringe organisations, the kind that appeal to Little Englanders with a decaying chip on each shoulder, or shady outfits with vested interests in ditching the EU. Oh, and Sir Michael Caine.
From the Labour Party comes not a word. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn is apparently an ‘inner’ but dare not say so too loudly because that would be to support the hated Tories, not something to be considered at the best of times, least of all in their hour of peril. Frankly, we ‘inners’ would rather keep Mr. Corbyn on the sidelines. It is going to be a tough enough campaign as it is.
All of which leaves Britain in a singularly odd political situation: the government is in trouble but there is no official parliamentary opposition to exploit the fact.
In other words, there is a power vacuum in Westminster, and we all know what nature thinks of a vacuum (the same that the political right thinks – on both sides of the Atlantic).
What odds on a President Trump and a Prime Minister Johnson? Now there’s an odd couple!
Let the Battle of the Hairstylists commence.