Saturday 13 February 2010

Is Tim Montgomerie the most dangerous man in the blogosphere?

(Or is CCHQ just paranoid?)

The mild-mannered founding editor of ConservativeHome is the perhaps unlikely cover star of today's FT Weekend magazine, featuring prominently in Chris Cook's excellent FT feature on religion and the political right.

But is that where the Sarah Palin comparisons should stop? (After all, that role has already been taken by Fraser Nelson, if John Rentoul is to be believed).

Tory modernisers tell Cook that they are frightened by what Montgomerie's influence could mean, now that the Michael Ashcroft-owned website is the most prominent forum for information and debate within the party, with its surveys largely accepted by the media as an acceptable proxy for what "party opinion' thinks.

The site’s position as the guardian of the activists does not pass unchallenged: one CCHQ employee demanded I refer to Montgomerie as “the self-appointed voice of the grassroots” ... party staff worry about ConservativeHome’s ability to whip up outrage in the rightwing press. One former senior party press officer said “the Mail used to ring 100 constituency chairmen if they didn’t like what we were doing, and they’d get a story out of that. You know, ‘hard-working activists outraged’ stuff. Now they just need to ring Tim. The old ‘Tory splits’ stock story just got that much easier.”

The site could also act as a platform for rebels. One front-bench MP described its likely future role as a “serial harbourer of fugitives. I would expect Tim to back MPs who stand up to the whips in pursuit of the ConservativeHome agenda. God only knows what that means for our policies on climate change, Europe, on immigration or on defence.”

By contrast, Michael Gove praises Montgomerie as kindness personified, combined with sharp journalistic instincts. Gove's fellow front-bench moderniser has misdiagnosed his party's problem. Perhaps he should worry less about the impressive success of ConservativeHome, and think more on the lack of any prominent countervailing views ("on climate change, Europe, on immigration or on defence”, for example) within the party outside its salaried frontbench.

So, why is the modernising Tory centre-right almost absent from the blogosphere? The most influential and most popular Tory blogs are almost exclusively strong Eurosceptics, who would get Britain out; are with Fraser Nelson on tax, spend and the strategic direction of a Tory government; and are all climate sceptics too.

Does this modern Thatcherite hegemonic dominance of the Tory blogosphere broadly reflect the weight of opinions in the party, or does it reinforce it too?

Probably a fair bit of both.

This certainly raises the question of whether and how far the centrist modernisers exist, except as a top-down clique in CCHQ sent out in A-list parachutes. Those who would reject that must surely ackowledge the validity of an alternative critique: that they have failed to mobilise or organise. The modernisers' dilemma is that they don't seem to be on the pitch.

Meanwhile Tim Montgomerie, Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance and others have thought hard about how to create a movement politics on the right. It is far from clear that the 'command and control' model of modernisation could prevail over this in the 2010s as it might have done in the 1990s.

That looks like a recipe for internal conflict. A decent counter-argument can be made that more open and plural debate within parties can help to mobilise activism and support without spilling over into destructive conflict. But that may be less likely if all of the ideas and energy are coming from one direction, of which the leadership believes it has good reason to be wary.

In Montgomerie's "defence", he was running a series of almost comically loyalist pieces last week. Vote Conservative ... because of George Osborne and Vote Conservative ... because of Chris Grayling tied in first place for the Psephological Implausibility Shield.

But that is part of a longer game. And there is little doubt that Montgomerie is openly relishing three coming conflagrations within the party, over spending and tax cuts, Europe and the environment.

Next Left played some role in bringing the extent of Tory climate scepticism to wider notice, yet much of the credit must go to Montgomerie who has shown enormous persistence in that cause, once again in last Sunday's Observer repeating earlier warnings that it could split the party

Tim Montgomerie, founder and editor of the ConservativeHome website, said climate change had the potential to be as divisive for the party as Europe once was. "You have got 80% or 90% of the party just not signed up to this. No one minded at the beginning, but people are starting to realise this could be quite expensive, so opinion is hardening."

Though Montgomerie's language was considerably juicier in foretelling the Tory party that it ain't seen nothing yet when it comes to party strife over Europe if the sceptics do not get what they want from David Cameron.

The leadership wants the first year of a Conservative government to be about tackling the debt problem, schools reform, compassionate conservatism and restoring civil liberties. Understood but it cannot afford to drag its feet on renegotiation. The effort to renegotiate must be real and all necessary guerilla tactics used to get our way out of arrangements that the British people have never okayed. Someone credible to Eurosceptics needs to be appointed to handle the process, alongside respected Europe spokesman Mark Francois. As an act of reassurance I'd give the job to someone like John Redwood or David Davis. If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

Here, though, perhaps the dangers of overstretch for Tim Montgomerie and the ConservativeHome right could become evident.

Can you really fight a civil war on two fronts?

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