by David Talbot
As Tory activists gathered in Bournemouth in October 2002, for what was regarded as a critical make-or-break conference for Iain Duncan Smith, few were thinking about his newly appointed chairwoman, Theresa May. But whilst Duncan Smith was wasting everyone’s time, meekly proclaiming himself “the quiet man” of politics, May delivered a speech to a stunned audience that would have profound ramifications for British politics.
In a particularly hard-hitting passage, May said it was time for the Conservatives to face up to the “uncomfortable truth” about the way they were perceived by the public as the “nasty party”. Her description of a party that had sunk into corruption, incestuous feuding and outright bigotry, was devastating precisely because it was accurate. If you didn’t dislike the Conservatives, you simply weren’t trying.
It left an indelible mark on the party. Cameron’s entire strategy, since his election as leader in 2005, could been summed up by self-conscious efforts at “decontamination”. Hence an acceptance of the critique from the left about the party, and total and absolute submission to their fundamental framing of the terms of British political debate. Cameron didn’t get to be leader of his party without grasping, from personal and political experience, that the 21st century Tories could never afford, whatever other battles they might be prepared to fight, to be seen as the nasty party. And Labour desperately wants to revive this sobriquet that Cameron spent years of his leadership escaping.
Jonathan Powell in The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, weaves the maxims of the legendary Florentine civil servant to the proceedings he witnessed as Blair’s chief of staff in Downing Street from 1997-2007. It’s part of a surge of well-researched books relating to the disturbing saga of the politics at the top of the Labour party that was so unspeakably vicious that it interfered with the business of government.
Powell’s evaluation of Labour in government amounts to a devastating critique. Brown, in particular, is lucky that the full extent of his disloyalty has emerged only gradually and only after he ceased to be prime minister. If only Brown had supported Blair’s reform programme and waited patiently, he would have been able to succeed to the leadership smoothly and the Labour party would not have been damaged irreparably by the constant destabilisation. But his brief, benighted premiership was crowded with the lowest of politics. In short, it often seemed nasty: not a useful, stringent, purgatorial nastiness. Just plain nasty.
Many in Labour may take comfort in the belief that the Conservative party is still seen as being the nasty party. But it is no longer the case. The impression of Labour nastiness is stronger, and may matter more. Governments of the left sell themselves principally on their motive. On their avowed compassion, vision of social justice and morality. But Powell describes government where thuggery, bullying, threats and factions were the mainstay in the Labour arsenal.
Leaders seek office to change things through their ideology and beliefs. Yet they won’t be able to achieve any of their objectives unless they realise, as Machiavelli did, that there is such a thing as the art of government. Unless we accept and address the fact that Labour got this drastically wrong, the promise of a lasting legacy of bitterness and lost illusions is liable to haunt the party for many years to come.
David Talbot is a political consultant.