I feel one of the old myths reappearing in the political debate. Some are out and about saying that the Conservative party has to be more united to stay elected. They clearly remember no political history.
Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were both very successful Prime Ministers when it came to winning elections. Both won three in a row with large majorities. Both led divided parties, with very visible splits. Margaret Thatcher faced continuous opposition especially in the early years and at the end, from the so called “wets”, senior politicians including Cabinet members who thought her economic policy was wrong. They regularly briefed the press against her. There were occasional resignations and vocal opposition in the Commons from backbench sympathisers of the rebels.
Tony Blair faced down – and probably encouraged – old Labour opposition, as he wished to show New Labour had changed and was different. His belief in lower taxes, fewer rights for Trade Unionists, and tough on crime was designed to hold some former Conservative voters into his coalition, However, he faced far noisier and more serious opposition from within the heart of government, from his Chancellor living next door. There were endless stories of the rows and tantrums. Both men had small armies of MPs and adviser supporters, briefing their corners. Foreign Secretary Cook and Overseas Aid Secretary Short both resigned – somewhat belatedly – over Mr Blair’s wars.
None of this is to say that divisions and mega personality rows at the top are a good thing, but it is a reminder that unity is not the main thing that electors look for. They look for a strong economy, for their own rising living standards, and for other policy changes that go in a direction they like. They do not regard division and disagreement as an impediment to voting for that party. Some see it as a positive, showing that there is challenge and tension within the government, making the top people think carefully before committing. Reasoned challenge to policy ideas or statements of the government’s position is a good thing.
Nor is it true that John Major’s government was brought down by Maastricht rebels. It was brought down by the failure of the Exchange Rate Mechanism economic policy, and the high interest rates and tax rates that brought. Labour campaigned persuasively against “Tory tax rises” and “boom and bust”, the symptoms of the ERM failure. I do not recall them campaigning about the joys of the Maastricht Treaty.
There are voices today within the Conservative party urging differing policies and choices on the leadership. That surely is entirely healthy. It is best done without personality disputes and rancour – the Blair/Brown tensions were often over the top and unpleasant in tone. If there were no arguments going on about what the government could do next., and how to improve the lot of voters, some would ask is the party dead or merely sleeping? A lively political party has internal debate, and strives to improve through discussion and argument. Please do not go back to the odd idea that everyone in a party thinks the same, and therefore has to say the same thing. If that happened government would struggle more, and the public would then have a good reason to demand a change.