Oliver Letwin’s enemies thought they had seen the last of him at Blackpool. His idea of laying out a policy smorgasbord had almost sunk the party, they argued. Yes, there were some good ideas (mainly from Iain Duncan Smith) but having multi-millionaires like Zac Goldsmith proposing a Happy Planet Index and telling the shoppers not to use supermarket car parks was disastrous. Presenting contradictory policies to the public did not make the party look open-minded, it was argued, but downright schizophrenic.
Once David Cameron fought his way out by deciding hard-headed policies for himself and announcing them at the Blackpool party conference, it was assumed he had learnt his lesson and would leave Mr Letwin to terrorise Rothschilds with his talk of ‘aroma’. But those attending the policy meetings of the 1922 Committee this week, where the leadership lays out its stall to backbenchers, have found a cheery Mr Letwin turning up to introduce the sessions. He is back as policy chief, released from Tamzin Lightwater’s ‘Tranquillity Room’, helping decide which ideas the party will pick.
So instead of calm nerves, there is a sense of urgency — and not a little panic — to the debate being held in the party. Should Mr Cameron pursue the radical strategy which apparently saved him at Blackpool? Or should the party tread softly, wary of disturbing its best opinion-poll ratings in 15 years? How far should it promise to devolve power, moving to this ‘post-bureaucratic era’ Mr Cameron has mentioned in recent speeches? Should it develop a muscular approach to Europe, or work within the status quo?
The astonishing turnaround in opinion polls has served only to unsettle emotions further. ‘How could approval switch so quickly from a Prime Minister without vision to an untested shadow Cabinet which has yet to articulate what it stands for?’ asks one shadow minister. ‘Are things really that fickle? We are being suspended by a strapless bra. We’re back into the politics of mystery, and it means anything is now possible.’
The idea that boldness is back in vogue has energised the previously muzzled Euro-sceptics who are once again urging Mr Cameron to adopt an openly confrontational stance towards the EU. The argument is fairly simple. Rules are observed by the British, but are regarded as merely advisory in the countries like France and Italy (as anyone who has driven in either country will attest). Ditto EU law. If the French wish to impose a ban on British beef, as they did in 1999, they will do so — and to hell with Brussels. If Italy wants to expel Romanians, as its Cabinet ruled a fortnight ago, it will do so.
Faced with such a muscular approach, the EU either takes years to rule something illegal (as it did with the French) or cave in (as it did fairly quickly with the Italians). Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has been struck by how the action of the Italian government has reassured its people over immigration. She has asked her officials to provide more information about the Italian scheme, and whether it could work here. Tory Eurosceptics feel the ground is shifting, and want Mr Cameron to lead the way.
The problem in Britain is the judiciary, which can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights — and this takes us to the root canal of the current Tory toothache. Nick Herbert, the shadow justice secretary, would like a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities which would terminate the authority of the European Court of Human Rights. But this goes further than official policy. The proposed Tory Bill of Rights, as currently drafted, would still be subordinate to Strasbourg’s edicts. Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, has made clear that the adoption of Mr Herbert’s much more radical proposal would result in his resignation.
Mr Grieve, a practising barrister, has supported the European human rights agenda since he praised it in his maiden parliamentary speech ten years ago. He has set up his own policy review board, which is expected to conclude that Tory policy should not threaten the legal supremacy of Strasbourg. If it reports early enough, Mr Cameron may well be bound by its decision. Yet Mr Grieve is opposed by a growing coalition of Tory MPs, who are only emboldened by the prospect of his resignation.
There is also a generational axis at play. The 2005 intake of Conservative MPs is strikingly Eurosceptic and unashamedly Thatcherite — a trend which looks set to be reinforced in coming years, according to a fascinating survey of Tory candidates by the Conservativehome website. These are people who have pictures of Baroness Thatcher on their wall, often with her mocked up as a revolutionary in the style of Jim Fitzpatrick’s 1968 Che Guevara poster.
By and large, they regard as hopelessly anachronistic the idea that Europe somehow represents Britain’s economic future, and believe the EU represents menace rather than opportunity. They consider low regulation to be the best route to success in a globalised society. And they propose to limit government authority in Whitehall, as well as in Brussels.
The policy on elected police chiefs is a case in point. If policing is truly made a local issue, as it is in the United States, we would be left with the question of what a Conservative home secretary would do. Older hands fear that this would leave the government emasculated if there were a national law-and-order issue to resolve. ‘But these are the people nostalgic for their old red boxes,’ one of the new Tory MPs says. ‘They think government will be better if it’s run by a man with a blue rosette. They don’t realise that state control is itself the problem.’
Neither side is quite clear where David Cameron stands. For all his youth, it is he who has retained Mr Letwin, and he who has shown no appetite for confrontation on Europe. Many suspect he agreed an informal détente with Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, when they met in Berlin last month, and that he is much less radical on EU policy than his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague. The Tory leader backs police reform, yet his health policy is to guarantee the unions an end to NHS reform. He promises radical Wisconsin-style welfare reform, but has as yet to announce the details.
So the tension within the Tory party runs far deeper than the spat about a future EU referendum. It is visible throughout the policy debate. The party is poised between caution and radicalism, confronting the EU or accepting it, between the idealism of the Notting Hill set or the more practical approach of the Blueberry Hill generation. It is, remarkably for the Tories, a quiet battle. But it is made all the more ferocious by the belief of those involved that, as policy is finalised in the next few weeks, the future of the party is at stake.