DJ Taylor: The Tories go for the chummy battleaxe look

Backbenchers join the popular revolt against petrol prices, but Theresa May upholds a fiercesome tradition of bossiness
  • @djtaylorwriter

Eighteen months into its post-election embrace with the Lib Dems, there is an odd (or perhaps not so odd) dualism about the modern Conservative Party. What price sweet reason and statesmanlike demeanour if they are in permanent danger of being shoved aside by those base and primitive instincts that got so many Tory backbenchers where they are today? Everywhere one looks among the ministerial boxes, some bright, personable man (or woman) – Michael Gove, David Willetts, Oliver Letwin – can be seen sedulously getting on with his job and meekly pursuing some more or less enlightened goal. Meanwhile, down in the parliamentary rumpus room, the usual gang of plutocrats' apologists, businessmen's stooges and bourgeois angst-quellers are busy keeping their constituency chairman on side.

Take, for example, Tuesday's four-hour debate on the proposed 3p per litre rise in petrol duty due to take effect in January, the consequence of a 110,000-signature public petition and a motion brought by Robert Halfon MP, and signed by 116 of his colleagues, nearly all of them Tory. The issues at stake here are, it must be said, considerable. Ah yes, fossil fuel, thinks the concerned environmentally-aware voter: not much of it left. Our duty, surely, is to safeguard what remains of it for the general good, while preventing further despoliation of our countryside by roads and cars, and allowing the Chancellor to raise much-needed tax revenue along the way.

On the contrary, complains Mr Halfon. Fuel duty is "a tax on hard-working Britons" (just like any other tax, then), not to mention a "number-one issue for the public". Really? More important than, say, youth unemployment or the potential collapse of the eurozone? A small voice of reason could be heard making itself felt in the person of Tim Yeo, Tory chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, who declared that it was important that Britain became a low-carbon economy. But no, Mr Halfon will have his brief moment in the sun, and the result is a loss of four hours' parliamentary time that could have been put to better use. To no one's very great surprise – for even Labour MPs are chary of offending the man behind the wheel – the Commons called "overwhelmingly" for the Government to consider a fuel-price stabiliser, whereby taxes rise as the price of fuel falls and vice versa. The Chancellor, on whose desk this unwelcome problem has now tumbled, should stick to his guns.

Viewers of the ITV show This Morning got a change from their usual diet of high-octane chat when the TV critic Paul Ross – brother of the more famous Jonathan – underwent a rectal examination live on air. Mr Ross was examined for symptoms of prostate cancer by Dr Chris Steele, who used a lubricated finger to examine the "shape, texture and size" of his prostate gland. The patient, though somewhat disconcerted by the experience, pronounced it a "life-saver". The chief executive of Prostate Action, Emma Malcolm, commented that "some people may say fingers up bums is too much for a daytime television show, but it's exactly that kind of embarrassment... that keeps so many guys from seeing their doctor before it's too late."

Sadly, I missed this televisual treat, but I can't think that I or anyone else among the audience would have been especially taken aback. After all, British TV screens are positively crammed with toe-curling items. A preliminary list might include Robert Peston's performances on the BBC news, Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor, any Channel 4 programme about teenagers' sexual health in which prurience masquerades as concern for the public's well-being, the entire output of Channel 5... From this TV watcher's angle, a rectal examination beats Mr Ross's brother's chat show any day.

Meanwhile, America has its very own ongoing TV comedy show, in the shape of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and the chronic inability of the contenders to stop making gaffes. Two weeks ago, it was the Texas governor, Rick Perry, who failed to remember the name of one of the three government agencies he intends to eliminate to cut federal spending. Last week, it was the Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who, in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "struggled" – as reports rather tactfully put it – with a query about President Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis. An aide insisted that Mr Cain had not had sufficient sleep.

All this raises an interesting question about the wider landscapes of modern US politics. Forty years ago, in the era of Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Spiro Agnew, it used to be said that the Republican Party was too oligarchical, full of backstage intriguers who turned up the same sinewy East Coast country-club intellects every time. Four decades later, with the South's abandonment of the Democrats and the rise of the Tea Party, a different kind of oligarchy has supervened, one based on wealth, religion, business acumen – that whole bag of TV-orchestrated self-promotion and populist tricks. The difficulty, alas, is that so many of its tribunes look like hayseeds when coaxed beyond their specialist base. Sarah Palin's knowledge of foreign affairs could have been inscribed on the back of a postage stamp. Does the public want expertise? Or does it want someone who merely reflects its prejudices? As the governments of Europe start to be recolonised by beady-eyed technocrats, it may be that this question has already answered itself.

In the end, against rather formidable odds, it was a good week for the Home Secretary, Theresa May. By fighting her corner and not standing any nonsense, Mrs May contrived to see off the challenge of a civil servant who looked at one moment to have brought her to the brink of resignation. In taking this stance, and in being applauded for it by a section of the commentariat not generally keen on Tory home secretaries, she moves straightaway into the small but select pantheon of politicians known as the Tory Battleaxes: tough-minded, straight-talking Conservative ladies whom the average male parliamentary private secretary crosses at his peril.

Baroness Thatcher is, of course, the movement's guiding light, but other torch-bearers might include Edwina Currie, Baroness Fookes and Ann Widdecombe. In applauding Theresa May's arrival on this distinguished platform, one might also inquire why Tory Battleaxes have to exist. The explanation lies in the same set of psychological circumstances that prevailed in the City of London when I worked there, whereby the female partners in accountancy firms nearly always turned out to be even more intimidating than their male equivalents. All of which seems to confirm the ancient adage that, to succeed in a man's world, a woman has to behave like a man, only worse.