Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Portillo asks if Tories can ever win again...

For those who missed Michael Portillo's article 'Is this the start of a Tory collapse?' in the Sunday Times, here it is in full...(sorry I couldn't make the link work on this computer (not mine)...

I have always doubted that the Conservatives could win the next election. Now my question is different

It is time for plan B. The Conservative strategy for defeating Gordon Brown lies in tatters even before he has moved from 11 to 10 Downing Street. The Tories recognised that Tony Blair is unbeatable. But Brown, they thought, would be different. He would be deeply uncharismatic in contrast to both his predecessor and David Cameron and he would hand the election to his opponents by veering to the left.

Conservative high command is the victim of wishful thinking. It was never likely that Brown would shift from the centre ground. He is, with Blair, the architect of new Labour. It is true that he has stealthily redistributed wealth through his cumbersome family credit scheme. But the low tax rates levied on private equity investors illustrate that in 10 years as chancellor Brown has also encouraged the rich to get richer. He is not going to drive the middle classes into the Tories’ arms.

The Conservatives may have put their political capital into the wrong currency. There is no doubt that Cameron has more charisma than Brown, but in recent opinion polls the chancellor leaves the Tory leader far behind in comparisons of “strength”. It is just possible that Britain will elect a candidate on the grounds that he is more charming despite being much weaker, but the Tories should not count on it.

Three weeks ago George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, crowed that the Tories were the true heirs to Blair’s reform of public services. The idea took the Conservatives in the right direction because it emphasised how much they had changed. But Osborne went further, hinting that the outgoing prime minister’s achievements would be undone by the doctrinaire Brown. In just one speech last week Brown blew that strategy out of the water. He committed himself to academy schools and foundation hospitals. In truth it was always painfully obvious that he would.

Less predictable was Brown’s offer of positions in the government to the Liberal Democrats. For the Tories, William Hague did his best to portray their refusal of the invitation as a humiliating snub for Brown. More accurately, it plunged Sir Menzies Campbell into a fresh crisis over his leadership, with Liberal Democrats accusing him of vacillation and clumsiness.

It unnerved Labour MPs, forced to recognise Brown’s untrammelled authority to hire and fire without limiting himself to one party. It sent shivers through the Tories as well. They were reminded that Brown and Campbell are friends and even travel together to and from their constituencies in Fife. It is easy to imagine that the two could do a deal if Labour fails to get an overall majority in 2010 (assuming that last week’s events have not already destroyed Campbell). The prospect of a Conservative government slipped a notch further away.

Most of all Brown delighted the media with a move that was bold and unexpected. Newspapers want entertainment. Brown may not have the acting skills of Blair but he is none-theless a showman. Every news editor perked up as it became clear that dour does not mean dull.

Under the Conservative masterplan Brown would have spent the past seven weeks embroiled in a damaging leadership contest. The Tories pretended to be afraid that David Miliband might win (and noisily set up a stop-Miliband unit, like some second world war decoy), hoping to lure him into the fray. During the leadership hustings Brown’s personality “flaws” would be revealed to the public and panicky Labour MPs would either vote him down or elect him only with foreboding. Meanwhile, Cameron would be on the march, scrapping old Tory shibboleths (such as grammar schools) to emphasise that his party is renewed.

In fact Brown has faced no challenge. Labour’s handover has been smooth, bordering on the elegant. The chancellor has grown in stature, mainly by saying little, and has enhanced his reputation for cunning.

Sometimes I believe that it is easier to analyse the Iranian regime than to predict what Brown will do. Except that we do know that he will focus on winning. No enthusiasm for Europe, no sentimentality about the special relationship with the United States, no nostalgia for old Labour will deflect him from the single purpose of still being prime minister after the general election. We are about to get a lesson in ruthlessness and single-mindedness.

By contrast, the single thought that unites much of the Tory party (apparently) is a determination never to be elected again. Since the local elections its fortunes have sagged. The leadership has made mistakes, such as attacking grammar schools head-on and announcing the reintroduction of museum charges. But Tory MPs and the party rank-and-file have performed far worse. Their undisciplined revolt against Cameron’s modernisation project has confirmed that the party is divided. It reinforces the public’s view that even if Cameron is different, the party is unchanged.
The MPs unrestrainedly mouthed off to opinion pollsters, with 59% disagreeing that Britain is a better place to live than it was 20 years ago. If the Conservatives yearn for the past, the electorate will consign them to history.

Many years back, the Tories lost the instinct of loyalty and a decade in the wilderness has not reawakened it. MPs are running around criticising everything except their own behaviour. They offer no leadership to their constituencies and, lacking political education, Tory activists expect the party to pander to their prejudices. The Cameron gospel has few preachers.

Not surprisingly the Tories are losing their opinion poll advantage. Cameron’s wide lead was the only thing that kept the diehards quiet for a while. Now they can argue that the modernisation project is failing. When Blair in opposition was transforming his party he, too, relied on being ahead in the polls to keep his party in check.

After the exchange-rate mechanism debacle of 1992 Conservative support slumped and Blair was guaranteed a massive lead. Despite Iraq, Labour in government has never been as unpopular as the Tories were. The change of leadership is giving Labour a boost. Cameron’s prospects of taming his party have always been worse than Blair’s were in the mid1990s.

Lamentably, the signs are that Cameron is now caving in to Tory pressure. Hague and David Davis were wheeled out to reassure the faithful. Explicitly they contradicted Osborne’s message about the party being heir to Blair. Unlike Labour in the 1990s, the Tories had no need to change their policies, having always been right, they said.

It would be impossible for them to get further off-message. Cameron knows that reassuring the party and widening its electoral support are opposites. In sanctioning the Hague/ Davis press release, he raised the white flag.

We have been here before. Hague started as leader understanding that the party had to change but soon capitulated. Michael Howard briefly adopted modernisation talk but the walk was unmistakably reactionary. Does Cameron need reminding that when Blair had occupied the middle ground it was Hague who moved the Tory party sharply to the right? That is how he won only 30% of the poll. Hague’s one apparent enthusiasm in foreign policy (on which he is the party spokesman) is Europe-bashing. Depressingly, the signs are that he is to be unleashed again as the Tories cry tallyho against the new treaty.

If Cameron really has surrendered, the party is doomed. I had concluded, when I left politics, that the Tories were ungovernable and had a death wish. But Cameron is clever and charismatic; I believed he could succeed where I had failed, especially since even the Conservatives might learn something after three landslide defeats.

Now I am not so sure. Cameron has wobbled. Unless he regains control of his party at once, the project will be lost. It would be much better for him to press on even at the risk of being deposed than to settle into the leadership agony of Hague and Howard.

I have always doubted that the Conservatives could win the next election. Now the question in my mind is different: can the Tories ever win again?

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