Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith is "murally dyslexic," according to one of his own backbench MPs Anthony Steen, "he can't read the writing on the wall!" The "nasty party" as their own chairman Theresa May MP dubbed the Tories, stumbles from one crisis to the next. The issue of adoption for unmarried and gay couples is an important one, but is not the root cause of the latest debacle. The press make much of Duncan Smith's history as a plotter and a backstabber in the days of John Major's leadership. He voted against the 'party line' more than 40 times over Europe. True as this undoubtedly is, the Tory leader's paranoia, seeing plots around every corner, is not the source of their crisis either. The Tory Party is the most successful bourgeois party in history, its longest period in the wilderness came between 1846 and 1866. Otherwise from the 1830s to the present day, the Tories have never been out of office for more than 11 years. Today they are not only out of office but hopelessly split, reflecting the divisions in the capitalist class about the way forward for their system.
Electorally, in 1997 the Tory party was hammered into a worse position than they had suffered since 1832. They have failed to make any significant recovery in the years since. The significance of 1832 is that it was the birth of the modern Conservative Party. That was a major turning point.
The Tory party is the oldest political party in Europe tracing their roots back to the Cavaliers. In the nineteenth century the Tories were defeated by the Whigs on a programme of reforming parliament. Earl Grey's 1831 Whig government introduced a Reform Bill to enfranchise all householders rated at £10 per annum, thereby extending the electorate from 500,000 to one million, while still excluding the working class of course. More seats were proposed for the expanding cities and metropolitan areas, passing more power to the industrialists and manufacturers. In the best traditions of democracy this was a case of reform from above to prevent revolutionary upheavals from below'. Lord Macauley addressing the Commons on March 2, 1831 warned starkly, "Unless the plan proposed be speedily adopted, great and terrible calamities will befall us… At present we oppose the schemes of revolutionists with only one-half, with only one-quarter our proper force… We do more. We drive over to the side of revolution those whom we shut out from power…Turn where we may, within, around, the voice of great events is proclaiming to us - Reform that you may preserve!"
The newly widened franchise saw the Whigs take 500 out of the 658 seats in the new Parliament. The Lords, industrialists and manufacturers hoped the reform bill would prevent revolution. The workers expected real improvements in their conditions to follow. In reality it solved nothing. Elections in themselves do not. But they do reflect the mood developing in society at a given moment. The failure of the government to solve the problems of the working class led to the explosion of the Chartist movement.
At every stage working people have had to fight for every reform we have won, including the right to vote. Eventually the workers' movement had to form its own political party, the Labour Party. This whole process began with the defeat of the Tories under the Duke of Wellington. The Whigs renamed themselves Liberals, while the Tories became the Conservative Party.
The birth of the Tory party was a turning point in British politics. Could the current crisis spell its death?
Iain Duncan Smith demands his party "unite or die" - for now, they can do neither.
With the vultures circling above his troubled leadership for months, Duncan Smith set this latest runaway train in motion himself.. Unsettled by a second successive poor performance against Blair in the Commons, the Tory leader was in no mood to compromise with so-called modernisers over the issue of blocking gay couples from adopting. John Bercow resigned from the shadow cabinet in protest.
"We cannot go on in this fashion," Duncan Smith retorted. "We have to pull together, or we will hang apart."
It was agreed that it would be a mistake to make his "unite or die" speech at a prearranged press conference to launch the Tories' latest right-to-buy policy in the East End of London. Presumably they feared the chants of "go on then, die!" from local tenants.
To reinforce his status and authority as Tory leader, he would appear instead at Central Office, Tory HQ, flanked by senior members of the shadow cabinet. But the mess which ensued - two shadow ministers were left kicking their heels at an East End estate as Duncan Smith's trip was cancelled with 10 minutes' notice - showed that the leadership was floundering.
Following his "unite or die" plea, no doubt feeling reinvigorated by the sound of his own voice - which apparently prompted a flood of favourable faxes from grassroots Tories - the self-proclaimed "Quiet Man" made another error. The new 'champion of Britain's vulnerable people' (!) headed to London's prestigious Ivy restaurant for an engagement with television executives. "Iain couldn't make it to the East End, but he could make it to the Ivy," said one critic quoted in The Guardian. "What a dreadful message." Never mind, one imagines the tenants were not too devastated to have been deprived of the pleasure of his company.
Thatcher then made her customary helpful intervention in the crisis. Asked about the future of the party and its leader she replied, "The Tory party will last. I don't know about Iain Duncan Smith because we all die... but the party doesn't."
Rather than "unite or die", the feelings expressed in the press by
leading and backbench Tories alike suggest a different slogan aimed at their
present leader - "You die and then we'll unite."
"Do you think we've peaked too soon?" quipped one Tory peer. Graveyard humour is evidently all they have left. "Who persuaded IDS to make that crass, that catastrophic statement?" asked one frontbench MP, quoted in The Guardian. "He holds a press conference to say: 'I lead a party that is out of control, and there's nothing I can do'."
Many Tory MPs recalled the 46 times IDS had voted against the John Major government. They staggered round the place blinded by fury and despair, telling any reporter who would listen what they thought of their leader. "He was a fifth-columnist, a saboteur," said one backbencher. "Now he asks for loyalty. Him! Loyalty!"
Another was even more blunt: "That bastard was the most disloyal bastard of all the bastards John Major had to cope with. And do you know why? Because he's a bastard!"
"Whatever IDS thinks, there aren't any cabals gathered against him. It's just a lot of individuals who think he's no good," commented one Labour MP.
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind warned the party was in danger or "tearing itself apart" and said Mr Duncan Smith - who had no front bench experience before becoming leader - needed better advice.
"I hope there is a clear strategy there. I have to confess it's difficult to identify at this stage," he told BBC TV's Newsnight. Unlike in IDS's plotting days it seems Tory MPs no longer bother with backstabbing, preferring to stab the current leader in the front instead
They cannot unite, but, unfortunately, they will also not die. For the present the capitalist class is happy enough with the performance of the Blair government, which is assiduously defending their interests and their profits. The 'second eleven' (the reserves the bosses call upon when their first team, the Tories aren't doing so well) are doing fine, up to the present. However, with each passing day the outlines of the future crisis in the Labour Party are clear to see. The Labour leaders are happy to do the bidding of the bosses but the Labour Party has another side - its rank and file and its organic connection to the trade unions. Despite the efforts of the Blairites the party remains wedded to the trade unions, themselves already passing through the first stage of transformation after years of right wing stranglehold. The process of change taking place in the unions and the developing crisis in society must find a reflection inside the Labour Party at a certain stage. The ruling class will not always be able to rely on the Labour leaders to carry through their interests. They will turn back to the Tories.
The present Tory leadership is all at sea precisely because Blair and co have stolen their clothes, spending limits, privatisation of public services, immigration control. Whilst the response to crisis at some point will be Labour moving left and dumping Blairism, the Tories will move further to the right. They have within their ranks the outlines of future splits to the right too, in the shape of their most xenophobic, monarchist and racist elements.
Yet the Tories can get back in to office. That seems unlikely in the next election, at this stage. No-one would put money on the Tories, in fact, in the bookies you can get good odds on when Duncan Smith will be removed as leader. Yet it is their own crisis rather than enthusiasm for Blair that leads some papers to ask whether they might be driven into third place behind the Liberals next time around. Disillusion with Blair led to massive abstentions at the last election. That can only grow as Blair and co continue with their devastating plans to privatise public services. Even by the next election many former Tory voters may decide to return to their roots, while Labour voters increasingly sit at home. A lot can happen before the next election.
Papers like the Mail mourn the death of their beloved party and blame the pygmies in the leadership. Major, Hague, IDS are compared most unfavourably with their great favourites, Thatcher and Churchill.
Lord Cranborne, the former Tory leader of the Lords, was withering. "They look increasingly like the latter days of the Roman empire, with six or seven dwarves fighting for the imperial purple, and the very battle will ensure that once one of them has got what remains of the purple, a rag, that there will be no empire to run."
So will there be a challenge for the Tory leadership. The Guardian reports that the 25 MPs needed to spark an election are on standby to move at any time. Supporters of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo are going out of their way to talk down a leadership contest. That should be enough to make one suspicious.
Leon Brittan made it clear that a new election for leader would be damaging for the Tories, making them look as hopeless, hapless and divided as when they elected IDS last year. Instead Brittan strongly suggests that IDS should do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. In their usual deceitful round-the-houses method he doesn't actually say this, but combines the statement that there should not be an election with the thought that maybe Duncan Smith wouldn't still be leader come the next general election. Only one conclusion can be drawn from that. He should resign and leave the choice of a new leader to the MPs, not allow the Tory party's hang 'em, flog 'em, and kick 'em out of the country rank and file to elect a replacement.
The prospect of taking over the leadership of the Tories is not one many relish at the moment. Even defeated candidate, and dumped Party Chairman David Davis wishes to hold off for a while yet. One of his supporters leaked to the press that he is desperate to avoid a challenge this side of the next general election because he fears that he will just inherit a "wasteland".
In any event whoever leads the Tory Party at the time of the next General Election doesn't make much difference. The key to that election will be events. It will be war in Iraq, the economy, privatisation of public services that will be decisive. The Blair leadership of the Labour Party on its present course will create more disillusionment, support for Labour will fall again, the turnout will decline too. All these events will play their part in a new process of radicalisation within the Labour Party in the next period. But even so it is difficult to imagine the Tories staging enough of a comeback to win that poll. It would be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.
The dearth of leadership in the Tory Party is not the cause of their crisis, but it is not an accident either. The failings of these leaders faithfully reflect the impasse of their system. Nye Bevan once said of the Tory leaders (including Churchill) they have nothing to say about tomorrow, and harp on about the past because they have no part to play in the future. They are a doomed party representing a doomed class and a doomed system. The crisis in the Tory Party is symptomatic of the impasse facing the profit system. The sickness of that system spreads like a cancer affecting every aspect of society.
The crisis of this system affects all classes in society, beginning at the very tops. For us it means stress, low pay, a housing crisis and so on. The divisions in the Tory Party are part of this process too. In fact, the three pillars of the British Establishment, the three Cs - Church, Crown and Conservative Party - are hopelessly divided over how best to proceed. Up to their necks in sleaze, or corruption, scandal or intrigue, their crises reflect the inability of the system to offer any way forward for society. These crises are unparalleled in British history, they cannot be passed over as mere entertainment. They are in fact a clear illustration of just how profound the crisis facing the system really is.
The Tories will move virulently to the right in defence of diseased and decaying capitalism in years to come. Their electoral fortunes will rise and fall but scream and screech as they might in the end, united or not, eventually they will die, along with their system.
The great Tory leader Lord Salisbury mused on what it would be like to be the last Tory. Salisbury, wrote in 1882: "It will be interesting to be the last Conservative. I foresee that will be our fate." Duncan Smith won't be the man to find that out, but the sooner their demise the better for the rest of us. The writing is on the wall not only for Duncan Smith but also for the capitalist system and its most consummate representatives The British Conservative Party.