Bruno Waterfield on the lingering death of the Conservative Party
'Who are the Tories?...What is the Conservative Party?' Coming from a newspaper often dubbed The Daily Torygraph for its staunch support of the Conservative Party, in the run-up to May's key elections against a Labour government basking in unprecedented support, this was some question.
Since the Conservatives' electoral defeat and marginalisation in 1997, it has become increasingly clear that the party remains trapped between its old ideals and policies and the politics of New Britain; between the failures of the past and fear of the future. The Conservatives know that they have to change, but find themselves weighted down by so much baggage that they cannot even reach agreement within their own ranks about what should be done.
Take the furore over deputy leader Peter Lilley's speech, given at a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Thatcher's victory. The substance was hardly contentious, merely a statement of a more 'caring' and 'compassionate' Conservatism. But the presentation was explosive. It centred on renouncing a key ideological tenet: the efficacy of free market economics. Even before a word was said the speech, heavily spun by William Hague's staff, opened deep divisions within the Tory Party. Shadow cabinet ministers forced a rewrite, and recrimination, leaks and self-loathing dominated the celebrations.
The whole episode had exactly the opposite consequence to that intended. It emphasised, to anybody who did not know, the Conservative Party's dependence on ideas that enjoy little support outside the strange world of the right-wing think tanks. The more Hague tried to clarify the matter, to consult and apologise, the more divisions opened up to view. In New Britain, ideas that once expressed the strength and formidable unity of the Conservative Party now only frustrate attempts to bring it back to political life.
But the Conservative Party has a long way to go even before it thinks of 'coming back'. In 1997 the Conservative share of the vote was just 31 percent - its lowest since the 1830s. Only 10 percent of the electorate sees Hague as a capable leader, and even Conservative voters are more than twice as likely to believe in Tony's capabilities than they are in William's: they rate Blair over Hague in a crisis at four to one. In 1981, halfway through Thatcher's first term, Labour polled at a 39 percent share of the vote, an eight percent lead on the government. In 1999 - halfway through Blair's first term - the Conservatives nationally polled at 25 percent of the vote, 31 points behind the incumbent government. With ratings like this it is not really surprising that the Conservatives approached elections in Scotland, Wales and local authorities in a state of near panic.
The results continue to beg the question - what are the Tories for? According to Hague, a two percent rise in their vote share in a local election is the Conservatives' 'best result since 1992'. Results that moved Michael Ancram to declare he was 'delighted' to be 'moving ahead' caused analyst Professor Anthony King to comment, 'I never thought I'd sit in a TV studio and hear the chairman of the Conservative Party boast about retaking Worthing. That is how far they have fallen'.
But even should Hague and his party rally at the polls, their problems would be far from over. In Blair's Britain the political terrain has shifted so far from the spirit and principles of Conservatism that the party is in a no-win situation. The more Conservatives cling to the tenets of their traditional ideology the less chance there is of anybody taking them seriously. But the more they try to distance themselves from their ideological past, the more their irrelevance to the present is exposed.
For example, Conservatism once embodied the idea of 'the nation'. When the Tories flew the Union flag the left could only be sidelined, no matter how they aped their patriotism. For Hague 'the People' are essentially British, although modern, expressed through institutions like parliament and the monarchy. But for Blair 'the People' are based around a cultural sensibility: Cool Britannia, Princess Di and diversity. New Labour may be contrived and self-conscious but it surfs this sensibility; and its approach almost seems natural compared with Hague's constant attempts to 'connect' with popular culture, through his baseball cap and wooden presence at Notting Hill, or his excruciating advance leaks to the press that he would be having premarital sex with Ffion at the 1997 conference, or his admiring references to 'the Britain of Ricky and Bianca' in a recent major speech.
The Conservatives may have branded Blair 'phoney Tony' but in a recent Times poll Tory voters gave Blair five times the personality rating of Hague. When it comes to embracing New Britain the Conservatives seem even more shifty and insincere than the old left's attempts to match Thatcher in the Union flag-waving stakes. Hague laments, of New Labour, that 'people will wake up and find themselves living in what feels like a different country...the impact of the Blair agenda will make people strangers in their own land....Without knowing quite how, some of the things which really matter to us and help shape our sense of what it is to be British will have been lost'. But however objectionable the Blair agenda may be, it reflects the spirit of New Britain. The Conservatives are the aliens now.
Nowhere is the end of Conservatism made clearer than with the war in Kosovo. The Tories used to be the party of the British state at war, and with their close links to British military they could dominate discussions of strategy. Embodying the nation, they defined the national interest. Where the left equivocated at the prospect of war the Conservatives led the call to arms. Yet today, the Conservatives are on the sidelines tailing a different kind of war: a New Labour battle that is not about national interest, but about ethics and morality, in which the strategy does not matter as long as 'something is done'. Even at war, the thing the Conservatives used to do best, they are forced into retreat and surrender. Defeat, it seems, is inevitable.
Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999