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Editorial: Tensions within the Tory Party represent an opportunity for Labour

THE Conservative Party is the most experienced ruling-class organisation in the world, with its defining characteristic an extreme flexibility in implementing policies which have served the dominant class in British society throughout the several centuries of its existence. 

It often confounds with its ability to construct a multiclass base that not infrequently allows it to outmanoeuvre its main electoral rival, the Labour Party, which traditionally sacrifices the interests of its bedrock support in pursuit of a middle ground more usually dominated by the Tories.

In times of relative stability this chameleon-like ability of the Tories — buttressed by the habit of ruling, command of the dominant ideas in society and a servile press to appear as the embodiment of a social majority — is difficult to challenge.

One way of thinking about the last half-decade is to take the Corbyn revival of Labour and its near electoral triumph in 2017 as a sign that the the historic logjam of British politics was breaking up.

But bear in mind that the Tory vote also went up, signifying that not only was politics polarising but that the Tories, with the gift of Labour’s divisions over Brexit, were able to appeal to parts of the electorate that so far had resisted the allure of rampant individualism and “free” market economics.

Boris Johnson attained office by defenestrating Theresa May over precisely the issue which allowed Sir Keir Starmer to do the same job on Jeremy Corbyn.

In normal circumstances Johnson might have envisaged two terms in office. The divisions in the Tory Party that Covid-19 has laid bare means that he will be lucky to do one term of this parliament and may well be sacrificed sooner.

This weekend sees the more public working out of the tensions in Cabinet between the health minister and his supporters, who have some sense of the gravity of the situation that the rise in infections signifies, and the Chancellor’s faction which cleaves more closely to the traditional Tory priorities that put ownership and profits, the unimpeded accumulation of capital, at the centre of their thinking.

Johnson has lost control of his Cabinet and no longer possesses the initiative either to impose policies or accommodate these conflicting factions.

It is not just the parliamentary libertarian tendency overlapping with the European Research Group who cannot reconcile themselves to the infection control measures that science and rational thought compel but that subterranean tendency among Tory MPs that presently finds a voice in the chairman of the back-bench 1922 Committee.

Rishi Sunak may be best placed to surf this incoming wave but he too is constrained by the absolute necessity to devise mechanisms, such as business support and local extensions of the furlough scheme, which compensate, at least in part, people in north-west and north-east England, Humberside and other places where regional lockdowns are imposed.

We are not quite in the situation where alt-right militia groups conspire to kidnap any politician who takes infection control seriously, but there is a tendency in British public life that is attracted to the idea — dressed up in faux concern about the need to protect the vulnerable — that thinks the unimpeded resumption of capital accumulation is a moral imperative greater than the protection of public health.

These, after all, are the people who over the generations resisted the establishment of the NHS, obstructed anti-smoking legislation and today obstruct the renovation of buildings clad in flammable materials.

Here is, not an open goal, but certainly a wealth of opportunities for Labour to spell out a coherent strategy to tackle the crisis in the interest of the many not the few.

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