The most intriguing and under-reported titbit that emerged from last year’s #libspill came in the form of an offhand comment by Andrew Bolt on The Project. Bolt dropped a tantalizing little teaser about ‘really loose talk … of where is there a party for conservatives?’, suggesting Coalition conservatives might strike out and form their own party.
Waleed Aly suggested it be called ‘The Bernardi Party’, which elicited dutiful groans and nervous chortles from his co-panellists. I immediately rang a dear mate – a sort of informal advisor to Bernardi – and asked if there was such really loose talk. ‘Well, yeah, of course,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Some of it’s mine, at least. But I don’t think he’ll do it.’ Notwithstanding, we drew up a list of hacks and journos whose support the Senator might expect. Even by our liberal estimates, the numbers weren’t great. We couldn’t come up with a single likely defector from the politburo or commentariat – except, of course, Roger Franklin, my erstwhile colleague at Quadrant. Come to find a few days later even Bernardi didn’t want anything to do with the Bernardi Party.
On further reflection, that seemed to be for the best. The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, a think tank-slash-booze crew of which I’m a proud member, published a post-spill symposium discussing conservatives’ future in centre-right political parties. Not a single article (including mine) suggested we ought to break ranks. Many of the contributors, it’s worth noting, had themselves been hounded out of the Liberal Party for sitting a bit too right of the centre.
Yet even in this bastion of classical conservatism, none could deny the ultimate usefulness of the Liberal Party in advancing the conservative cause. The Liberal Party, we concluded – like the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the US – is a vehicle. If a car’s headed in the wrong direction, there’s probably something wrong with the driver and not the car itself.
My thinking was that a conservative third-party would fail for the simple fact that there aren’t enough conservatives to vote for one. Even if every single Bernardi supporter followed him into the breech, we may well find that there just aren’t enough Bernardi supporters to make a dent in the liberal establishment’s armour. It would be altogether more sensible for conservatives to wage a cultural and intellectual war both within the Coalition and outside the traditionally political realm. Bernardi opted for that course, as did Tony Abbott. No bomb-throwing Tory anarchists, these two.
Still, the Brexit vote must give one pause. The curious thing about Nigel Forage’s UKIP is that it was never really established with the intention of forming a majority government in parliament – at least not immediately. Farage has always been content in the short-term to mischievously nudge the Conservative Party to the right. Your average right-wing Brit will vote Conservative, unless he thinks the party is in really dire straits.
UKIP served as a useful watermark of right-wing resentment against the established centre-right party. Their causus belli might’ve been British independence from the EU, but they’re much more than that now. By their own account, they’re the uncompromisingly conservative force in the mainstream of British politics. The Conservatives couldn’t take their electoral base for granted without handing ammunition to Farage. And the success of the Leave campaign must show, if nothing else, that the majority of Conservative voters were ultimately more aligned with Forage’s thinking than Cameron’s. We now see that the threat posed by UKIP wasn’t (and perhaps isn’t) idle. There’s no end to the havoc they could wreak on the Conservative bosses if the latter manages to really piss off its base.
With Brexit done and dusted (barring an act of God, or at least the aggrieved Europhile establishment), UKIP is going to need a major rebranding. Farage & Co. must already be exchanging texts asking each other, ‘What now?’ With a post-EU Britain and a Boris-led Conservative Party imminent, they’ll have to ask themselves whether to raise the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner and assimilate back into the centre-right, or whether to explicitly declare themselves as a vehicle for the dissident, grassroots Right.
I’ve always longed for the day when Tories regain control of the Tory Party. Call it sentimental, but I should like for the Anglosphere’s oldest conservative party to remain both electorally viable and ideologically sound. But one must wonder if that’s only possible so long as UKIP is there to pull on its tailcoats. Who knows? After the reign of BoJo, the Cameronites might wrest control of the party once again. That, and it’s altogether doubtful that Nigel Farage would be given any say in even the most strident Conservative Party leadership – surely a fate worse than death. Love him or hate him, couldn’t we all do with more cheeky boozers like Nige?
The Aussie election is, in a way, a purely indifferent matter for conservatives. There’s no pretence that either of the two major parties would lead a really conservative government. Rowan Dean’s right, of course: we’re better off under Turnbull’s Liberals than Shorten’s Labour – if only because stout-hearted men like Bernardi and Abbott didn’t jump ship and ruin what little rapport we have with the new small-‘L’ bosses.
But there must be a limit. I can’t help but wish that Bernardi had at least let the defection rumours dangle a bit, just to give the PM and his fellows a little something to sweat over. Look, I’m no Del-Con. I’ve said all along that Turnbull won the top job fair and square: by being more politically savvy than Tony Abbott. Political parties are, as we said, vehicles. Whoever’s behind the wheel gets to drive. There’s no sense in taking a more romantic view of it than that.
So maybe the best thing for the Liberal Party is for an Australian Farage to come along and say, ‘To Hell with this. I’m getting my own car.’ Maybe we’d do well for an Aussie UKIP to appear and threaten the establishment with a real alternative. Not to unravel the two-party system, of course. (Perish the thought!) Just to, you know, keep things cheeky.
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