PARTY SPLITS RARELY END WELL

Getting a wee thing crowded in the Tory Party lifeboats as yet more time served, green gilled worthies jump ship. They’re not rats and the abandoned vessel may not sink, but they all recognise the party to which they plighted their troth is unrecognisable. Captured by a caucus we used to imagine was so far beyond the conventional pale as to be merely the kind of swivel eyed cult to which a party’s outer fringes sometimes succumb. Oh how we laughed at the idea that Jacob Rees Mogg could ever serve as anything other than the punchline to a very bad joke. Or that there could ever be a second coming for Iain Duncan Smith, a man whose serial ineptness once caused his own party to sack him as leader out of sheer embarrassment.

The folk now swimming hard away from the wreckage of their Conservative careers used to call themselves one nation Tories. And, though their nation was definitively not our nation, we kinda knew what they meant. I’ve never voted Tory nor ever will, but neither do I find tribal hatred attractive.So it was possible to imagine having an amiable disagreement with Matthew Parris, swapping bad hair day stories with Anna Soubry, having a glass or two with Ken Clarke down the pub. Possible to admire Heidi Allen’s tour round northern food banks sampling the reality of her then party’s austerity at first hand, or to accept the earnest sincerity of Sarah Wollaston who, as an erstwhile GP, could recognise the vandalism of the NHS in England. Meanwhile cabinet members who held their nose and joined Bojo’s cabinet are belatedly overcome with the same degree of nausea. No more Amber Rudd. No more Nicky Morgan. Philip Hammond, grey man personified, emerging as a kickass rebel. Truly these are remarkable times.

(And spare a pitying thought for the baker’s dozen of Tartan Tories trying desperately to keep up with the latest London script. Turns out citizens’ assemblies are the very democratic dab after all. Turns out that being anti-fracking is de rigeur.)

Yet there is a lesson here for all political parties which is that doing the splits can be seriously bad for your political health. To watch the Labour Party on the day their leader agreed to an election, was to observe two irreconcilable groupings. One trying to convince itself that Corbyn could still prove an electoral talisman, the other fearful that he would prove a comprehensive vote loser. More yesterday’s man than Marmite man. And most of his MP’s are uneasily aware that in an age demanding sexy soundbites and smart slogans, a Janus style policy endeavouring to face both Leave and Remain at once is unlikely to hoover up waverers in either camp. To say nothing of needing enough time on the doorstep to explain that Labour branded Brexit agony would require yet another conference, yet another convoluted composite motion, yet another stab at EU negotiations. Oh, and by the way, when they finally got round to offering another vote they wouldn’t be quite able to say which side they’d support. This is the muddied waters school of clarity and it rarely has much appeal.

And what of the SNP? Often lauded for its discipline, it too has faced unrest in the ranks; an impatience and frustration with what critics have seen as too softly, softly an approach to a second referendum. An over readiness to play by the Westminster rule book on the grounds that flouting the conventions would render attempts at self determination illegitimate. Some radical voices have called for the creation of another party, one which would presumably set a more robust pace and have no truck with London based naysayers. The appearance at the National’s rally of both the First Minister and the Justice and Brexit Secretaries on Saturday suggests the government recognise that distancing themselves from their more fervent troops – at least physically – is not a good look. And Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was not short of the kind of up and at ‘em rhetoric the serial marchers wanted to hear.

In any event, those who think the answer lies in yet another new party should be very careful what they wish for. The history of political start ups in the UK is not an impressive one. Usually born in gung ho enthusiasm, often moribund at the first whiff of electoral grapeshot. Some, like the SDP, linger a while then collapse into the arms of a pre-existing group. Some like the short lived Independence Group, try on a few other names for size before their original adherents peel off and return to mainstream parties or throw in the towel altogether.

Some, like the early Scottish Labour Party, and more recently RISE, often suffer from the factionalism so endemic in left wing politics. They tend to attract some people who affect to like broad churches before starting a punch up in the vestry. Whereupon battle commences between the purists and the pragmatists. Rumour has it that down south there’s also chatter about a group which might encompass erstwhile new Labourites like Alistair Campbell and Andrew Adonis. From where I’m sitting, while we’re in a first past the post environment, all such ventures do is split the left of centre vote.

Which is one of the joys of getting two votes for Holyrood. It’s not my preferred model of proportional representation, but parties like the Greens would find it difficult to break into parliament without it. It’s often said in sporting circles that victory comes to those who want it most. Politics is not so very different. Those Scots persuaded of the merit of independence need more than ever to put a shoulder to the wheel.

When there’s Boris, when there’s Nigel, the fires of scunneration have already been lit. Time to fan the flames.

PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL 4.11.19