Well, Malcolm Turnbull did it on Monday in London. He took Tony Abbott’s bait and weighed into the moderate v conservative debate. Ideological battle is joined. Like Holmes and Moriarty, Turnbull and Abbott are now locked in a desperate life-and-death battle with the Reichenbach Falls of the next election starting to roar in the distance.
Next stop: the political Twilight Zone.
Much has been said about Turnbull using his Disraeli lecture to claim Sir Robert Menzies as a progressive. In so doing he deliberately took on Abbott, his conservative party room supporters and del-cons in claiming bragging rights over the soul of the Liberal Party. For what benefit to him and reinforcing his leadership, who knows?
What hasn’t been talked about is why choosing a lecture honouring nineteenth century British PM, Benjamin Disraeli, perhaps wasn’t quite the best venue for him to throw down the gauntlet to Abbott and believers in his rediscovered conservative principles. The Disraeli link highlights comparisons that don’t exactly help Turnbull.
Appropriately, Disraeli and Turnbull have several things in common. Both were political adventurers, fond of the flashy, and determinedly believing that politics and public life desperately needed them, not the other way around. Both would have joined whatever party would have them, and both were known for their way with words: ‘Dizzy’ as a novelist and wit; Turnbull as a journalist and barrister. Both reached the top of the ‘greasy pole’ in their party after years of jockeying and intrigue. Both had the vanity to match their ambition.
And both brought down a Prime Minister. In the 1840s, a shamelessly ambitious Disraeli undermined and ultimately betrayed the first Conservative PM, Sir Robert Peel, ostensibly over the repeal of the Corn Laws but more out of grievance ever since Peel refused to recognise his undeniable genius and put him on the Tory frontbench.
But Disraeli also is an inappropriate parallel for a Turnbull who used his London lecture to claim the Liberal party and Menzies were never conservative.
Disraeli turned on Peel because of Peel’s determination to repeal the Corn Laws, which artificially inflated the price of grain and made bread and other basic staples too expensive for the poor – most especially Irish peasants devastated by the potato famine. In humanely trying to relieve that famine, Peel became the great economic liberal of his time and was fiercely opposed within his own Conservative party. The arriviste Disraeli, with an eye to his own future, cast his lot firmly with the diehard Tory aristocracy and large landowners who were determined to block repeal, free trade and cheap bread, to protect their own wealth and power at the expense of the weak and powerless.
Dizzy was Tory-heavy, not the Victorian equivalent of Labor-light, and he expediently stuck to his alignment for the rest of his career.
In other words, Disraeli backed the 1840s equivalent of the diehard conservative faction in how own party that Turnbull claims to be confronting as a centrist progressive. In the Turnbull vision of himself, however, Disraeli would be on the side of Tony Abbott. What’s more, unlike the republican Turnbull, Disraeli would have approved of Abbott knighting Prince Philip, having said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’.
Abbott’s intensifying crusade against his own party while still in government is unwise, unhelpful, needlessly damaging and will achieve nothing but mutually assured destruction for he and Turnbull, likely taking the Liberal party’s wavering hold on government with them. His assertions that the Liberal party is predominantly conservative are as mistaken as Turnbull’s asserting the opposite. That they both are wrong is little comfort to loyal Liberals despairing of the death struggle between these two big beasts tearing their party apart.
Give Abbott one thing, however: he knows his British political history better than Turnbull. He would find Turnbull’s identification with Disraeli amusing.
But Dizzy went all the way up the greasy pole, never much standing for anything but himself yet forming few friendships in politics, but getting away with it by force of his personality and ambition. Perhaps Turnbull appropriately gave the Disraeli lecture after all…
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.