The contrast between Jess Phillips and Suella Braverman tells us a lot about the current state of politics. They both left their frontbench posts this week. Phillips said about her party, “it’s complicated and difficult and largely we agree with each other,” praising the Labour whips for acting with “kindness and understanding”.
Braverman said, and I paraphrase only loosely: “I hate you Sunak and all your works. I made you and you betrayed me. I will salt the earth, seeking vengeance on you and your allies and all their descendants until I take my rightful position at the head of our tribe.”
There is one additional piece of information needed to make sense of this contrast, which is that the Labour split is just as deep, and the emotions run just as high, as in the Conservative Party. But Phillips knows how to behave in public, whereas Braverman has ceased to care.
I am sure that Phillips has engaged respectfully at all times, and that her “more in sorrow” tone is reflected in private, but some of her colleagues have been less comradely behind the scenes. I am told that sharp words have been exchanged between Keir Starmer and shadow ministers who have remained in post. Several shadow cabinet members are “furious” about the leader’s refusal to call for a ceasefire over Gaza.
It may be that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are in a state of permanent civil war. This is probably true of all parties at all times, with the conflict varying in intensity according to events and the strength of their leaders. You should have heard what some Liberal Democrats were saying in private about Sir Ed Davey at their party conference in Bournemouth recently. “I never expected to like Ed, but I didn’t know he’d be this bad,” one told me, complaining about the leader’s failure to take a stronger line on rejoining the EU.
The difference between the Tory civil war and the Labour one, though, is how much of each is visible in public. Plainly, when a quarter of Labour MPs voted against their whips’ instructions, including eight shadow ministers who had to resign, the Labour split is out in the open. But it seems less serious because Phillips was so polite about it.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to be losing the instinct of discipline. Admittedly only one Tory MP is calling publicly for Sunak to go, and Dame Andrea Jenkyns is not always taken seriously, while a lot of noise has also been generated by Nadine Dorries from outside parliament. But the tone of Braverman’s letter still has the power to shock several days later. “You have no appetite for doing what is necessary, and therefore no intention of fulfilling your pledge to the British people,” she wrote. “Your response has been uncertain, weak, and lacking in the qualities of leadership that this country needs.”
This is not the language of a political leader hoping to gather support for an attempt to put the country on the right course. It is a cry of pain and betrayal from someone who doesn’t care how much damage she does to her party in government. Yet she has been persuaded by her supporters and advisers that what she is doing is a rational strategy for winning the Tory leadership after an inevitable election defeat.
I think she and they are mistaken, or are trying to rationalise behaviour that they realise was driven by rage. If Braverman were coolly calculating her route to the leadership, she should have resigned on an issue of principle and been fastidiously polite about the prime minister. She should have done what Phillips did. That is why journalists are speculating about how soon it will be before Phillips is back on the front bench, while wondering which two of Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly and Penny Mordaunt will be in the run-off for Tory leader next time.
Most of Sunak’s problems stem from the feeling that the country is in a bad way, but they are made worse by the Conservatives having been in office for so long – and that in turn has led to a breakdown in discipline.
This is not just a matter of Braverman losing her composure but of the aftershocks of last year’s leadership turmoil. Sunak is still paying the price for accusing the majority of party members of believing in “fairy tales” about unfunded tax cuts. The public animosity between him and Liz Truss continues to poison the debate about Wednesday’s autumn statement. It will be condemned as vociferously, albeit for different reasons, from the government side of the Commons as from the opposition side.
Labour, meanwhile, seems to have put the conflict of the Jeremy Corbyn era behind it. With the resignations of Paula Barker and Rachel Hopkins as shadow ministers over the ceasefire vote, there are now no members of the Socialist Campaign Group on the front bench. The great self-purge is complete, despite John McDonnell, when he and Corbyn stood down, urging his fellow ideologues to stay and fight.
Yet the Labour civil war rages on, mostly out of sight, with the battle lines drawn in a different place, with Phillips and Stella Creasy, who might be described as semi-Blairites, on one side, and the “macho” Blairites around Starmer, as they were described to me, on the other.
This will be a problem for Starmer in government. But for now, the difference between Phillips and Braverman is the difference between a party that is hungry for power, willing to suppress its divisions and behave with decorum for the sake of the prize, and one that is close to giving up.