Alison Rowat: Conservatives need to get a grip or fetch their coats

Alison Rowat: to each generation their own Tory leadership contest
Alison Rowat: to each generation their own Tory leadership contest

THERE is one man who bears heavy responsibility for the current farce playing out at Westminster, and it is not Boris Johnson.

The Prime Minister must, of course, take much of the blame, having spent a lifetime manoeuvring himself into a job for which he has turned out be morally, intellectually, and every other way unfit.

But there is another character who should not be allowed to escape attention: Francis Urquhart, as brought to scheming life by Lord Michael Dobbs in his House of Cards trilogy. If not for “FU” there is a chance the Conservatives would not be as addicted to regicide.

Consider it. Outwith Caesar’s Rome, what other group of politicians has been so determined, so often, to topple their queen or king as the Conservatives?

What is it about this party that drives them to repeat such an act of apparent self-harm?

And as we grab the popcorn and take our seats for the latest instalment, should the rest of us really enjoy this so much?

The scenes are so familiar by now the players could perform them asleep. There goes the media, setting up their gazebos on College Green. Here come the ranks of unknown MPs, desperate for those 15 seconds of fame on social media (15 minutes is so 1960).

No one can find the ministers until they want to be found, but if you were to go down the side streets and knock on the doors of those Westminster townhouses, there they would be, still proclaiming loyalty and practising that oh so clever phrase that gives them room for denial should it all come to nought.

FU had the original and still the best formulation: “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment." Horribly over-used now, but amusing at the time. For me that time was 1990 and the leader being toppled was Margaret Thatcher. To each generation their own leadership contest. Heath, Thatcher, Major, Duncan Smith, May, and now Johnson, there are plenty to choose from. Mrs Thatcher in 1990 was my first, and therefore holds a special place in the affections.

Over the years the line between the fictional goings on in House of Cards and reality at Westminster at the time has begun to blur.

The book was published in 1989 but the television drama, with Ian Richardson as the Conservative chief whip with ambitions to be leader, ran from November to December, 1990. Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street on November 28. For a short, weird, exciting time, popular art seemed to be imitating life, or was it the other way round?

Even though her departure was known to be coming, it was still a shock to see that last wave from the car. She looked physically diminished, as though she had been through the mill and back again, which in a sense was true. Being on the end of such disloyalty will do that to a person.

On Monday, shortly after 148 of his own MPs expressed no confidence in him, Mr Johnson looked rattled. But come Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday he was back to his usual Tiggerish self, as though none of it had ever happened. He was helped by Keir Starmer’s decision to “go high” and focus on the state of the health service rather than the confidence vote.

It was left to Ian Blackford to wrestle with the “greased piglet”, but the SNP’s leader at Westminster failed to land a blow.

You can hardly blame MPs for enjoying this latest Tory leadership contest. Politics can be a tedious business at times. They work hard to get there, and most of them will go no further, so when there is excitement on their own turf, of course they make the most of it.

It will be the same today in the Scottish Parliament, where poor Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives’ very own Nadia Comaneci (other Olympic gymnasts are available), will twist and turn once more when trying to explain his support/lack of support/who knows any more, for the Prime Minister.

Among opposition parties there is a certain element, too, of "there but for the grace". Labour has hardly had its troubles to seek when it comes to leaders. Look how long it took the party to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. While the SNP is not a happy ship, particularly at Westminster, no-one is crazy enough to change such a long-serving and successful (at the ballot box) captain.

Other parties will only go down the leadership contest route when they have to, usually after an election defeat. But the Conservatives, what is going on there?

It is possible that disloyalty has become part of the party’s DNA. Just as they were “nasty party”, as described by Theresa May (and goodness did she learn the truth of that), so the tendency towards sedition might be baked in.

Maybe it is force of habit that they resort to regicide so often. It is one of their unique selling points, and fits in with the idea of themselves as a no nonsense party of business. If it is broke, fix it. If he/she is going to cost me my seat, get rid of them.

Whatever the reason it is time for the party to think again. The truth is the Conservatives are not very good at toppling their leaders. One internal war plants the seeds of the next. What is the current challenge if not payback by Theresa May’s supporters?

As for the entertainment value of Tory coups, that has gone too. Armando Iannucci did it so much better in The Thick of It.

What is particularly unforgivable this time is the way the party has stuffed up and left the job half done.

If yesterday’s PMQs are a guide, Mr Johnson is going to brazen this out. The rebels will be back, after the by-elections later this month, or once the parliamentary inquiry into whether or not the Prime Minister misled parliament gets going. The farce will run and run.

For most people, it ceased to be entertaining a long time ago. With so much to catch up on post-Covid, and with even tougher economic times hurtling down the track towards us (did you see the warning from the World Bank?), there is no shortage of problems to tackle.

What the Conservatives are doing, once again, is a distraction, and a dangerous one at that. When politicians appear to hold voters in contempt they can hardly be surprised when the feeling is reciprocated. Mr Johnson and his party need to get a grip, or fetch their coats.