Ian Birrell: Zombies of British Tea Party long to lurch further right

The primary cause of post-Budget problems was the decision to cut the top rate of tax
  • @ianbirrell

A few days before last week's local elections, the Tory MP Nadine Dorries wrote an article for the ConservativeHome website begging the Prime Minister to listen to the councillors and activists slogging away for the party cause.

Her provocative piece elicited a strong response, coming after her attack on "posh boys" running the government. Keep your mouth shut, urged one respondent.

A second complained she was boosting the Labour cause. A third condemned her ego, a fourth her "shameless self-promotion," a fifth her disloyalty.

She failed to take her own advice of listening to activists after a drubbing at the polls in which she played her part. Instead, turning up the heat at the weekend, she lashed out again and hinted that moves have begun to gather the 46 signatures needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in David Cameron's leadership.

Her outburst is the most extreme example of the jitters affecting the Conservatives in the wake of a dreadful few weeks. This is understandable, given the speed of collapse in the polls and self- inflicted nature of many wounds – although such a contrast with the impressive discipline shown by the Liberal Democrats, in a far worse pickle.

The loudest voices are those of the tea-party Tories. They are like zombies in a horror movie, returning in droves whenever darkness falls. Bizarrely, they seem to believe the way to lure back voters defecting to Labour is to lurch several steps to the right.

So we hear fulminations over the Coalition's "metropolitan" mindset, although eight in 10 Britons live in urban areas. They hit out at gay marriage as if it was this that drove away voters, when it has long been part of Mr Cameron's modernisation project that saw the Tories soar in popularity after he took over.

There are calls for the return of Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who masterminded Boris Johnson's mayoral campaign – although he was also the man behind the crude, crass and botched 2005 general election campaign that underlined the nasty party image.

Perhaps best of all was the MP who told the Prime Minister to listen more to Conservative MPs "who represent the real people of the country". Such a phrase drips with myopic disdain for the rest of the electorate, those voters needed for a majority government.

The only people who would benefit from deserting the centre ground – just as they benefit from divisions – would be Labour. Yes, the Government needs a remorseless focus on helping Britons struggling with the rising cost of living, the threat of unemployment, the lack of housing.

But the primary cause of post-budget problems was the decision to cut the top rate of tax. Whatever the fiscal arguments, this was poor politics when so many people are struggling.

It undermined both the key election slogan and six years of modernisation designed to alleviate fears that the Tories were a party for the wealthy.

Subsequent slips and stumbles appear so much worse viewed through this prism of aiding the super-rich. Mr Cameron was reluctant to reduce the 50p tax, rejecting initial Treasury proposals. But who were the people urging him on? Those tea-party Tories – some of the same people now demanding that the Government tack again to the right and listen to them.

So we see the likes of Douglas Carswell complaining on his blog that the parliamentary party is buzzing with people holding "coherent" ideas who are ignored. Yet two days before the Budget, he wrote: "Is the 50p rate of income tax going to be cut? I hope so."

Such critics always say they speak for mainstream opinion – but only when it suits them. It is unlikely, for instance, that many of Mr Carswell's Clacton constituents were demanding a cut in taxes for people earning more than £150,000; surveys taken nationally showed a hefty majority opposed to the idea.

Now Boris Johnson is hailed as proof of the need for a more full-blooded style of Conservatism. But as one opinion poll found yesterday, voters see him as less of a "true Tory" than Mr Cameron – unsurprising since he has paraded in a pink stetson for gay pride, backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants and extended the living wage.

Mr Johnson squeaked to victory because he ran a competent administration and offered voters a positive, modern, liberal and likeable brand of conservatism. This is the real message for Mr Cameron, one that has served him so well in the past, rather than those sirens on the right.

Ian Birrell is a former speechwriter for David Cameron. Twitter: @ianbirrell