Australia’s Liberal party has perhaps more good fortune than it realises. Its present leader and Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, enjoys harmonious relations with the man this magazine has, rightly, described as the greatest Australian leader since Menzies, John Howard. Anyone who watched the often poisonous relations that, for example, Margaret Thatcher had with her successor as leader and Prime Minister, John Major, will instantly appreciate how lucky Australia is.
One only has to recall the bile and ad hominem abuse flung at Mr Howard by the Australian Left to realise how successful he was. When a politician who has won four elections on the trot has to be described as ‘an unflushable turd’ by a former leading Canberra press gallery journalist (Mungo MacCallum) one knows that all rational argument is over, and that the opponent (then Labor leader Mark Latham) who endorsed the book in question has been roundly defeated both actually and morally.
Now, the Liberals are lucky to have a leader who understands the genius of his predecessor rather than resents it, and who seeks to learn from his courageous and intelligent policies and attitudes rather than, for the sake of supposed originality or individuality, or out of cowardice, ditch them.
This week in Britain has seen the annual Conservative party conference, and once more the party has shown how sorely it lacks a brave, principled, fearless voice within it that is determined to lead rather than follow. When Lady Thatcher died in April, her way of doing things was buried with her, at least as far as David Cameron was concerned. The social and economic values that she stood for, and which she shared with John Howard, are now regarded as anathematical by those who run the British Conservative party. The British public, however, are less convinced of this.
Mr Cameron has not encouraged any elder statesmen of the Thatcherite — or Howardite — stamp in his own party to influence him one jot. As far as he was concerned the Tory party truly was ‘the nasty party’ — the sobriquet given it a decade ago by its then chairman and present home secretary, Theresa May — and it had to stop doing nasty things. So, despite Britain’s being in its worst economic crisis for 80 years, it would not countenance really deep spending cuts, or a deep retrenchment in the size of the state. Such deep cuts would have allowed radical tax reductions that could have stimulated a far faster and better-based recovery than Britain is now beginning to witness.
However, such a tax policy couldn’t be contemplated either. This is not because Mr Cameron’s coalition partners in the Lib Dems objected to cuts in taxes that they caricatured as simply designed to make the rich richer. George Osborne told the Tory party before it got into government, and into coalition, that cutting taxes was not politically feasible — because it would look ‘nasty’ to give wealth-creators more money while poor people were tightening their belts.
If anyone of a Howardesque stamp had told him that rich people tend to spend extra disposable income on goods and services provided by poor people, thereby helping to keep those poor people in jobs and making them richer, Mr Osborne chose either to ignore them or not to believe them.
If there were a Howardesque figure in the modern Tory party, he might — if the present leadership listened to him rather than discounted him — set about proposing policies that would stop the haemorrhage of support away from the party. Since 2005 it has lost roughly half its paid-up members. This is partly because of a general disillusion with politics in Britain, with all main parties losing subscribers. However, it is also because of the Conservative party’s determination to be less conservative at almost every turn.
A killer for Tory party activists has been a social question: whether or not to allow same-sex marriage. Mr Cameron drove this through parliament in the teeth of opposition from his backbenchers and most of the party in the country. It caused resignations en masse from constituency parties — several MPs told me that half their members, including senior activists, have left the party over it.
In a book about the coalition published last weekend, even Mr Cameron admitted that if he had known the consequences of his determination to legalise same-sex marriage — a key policy in his drive to denastify his party — he wouldn’t have bothered. A few weeks ago, when the argument was at its height, ministers (who almost without exception felt it a good idea, on a free vote, to support the move) argued that come the end no one would remember the argument. They don’t say that now, because it is all too clear that the legacy will remain.
The Tory party in Britain needs a Howard figure for three reasons. First, it needs someone with a direct line to the ordinary citizen — the straightforward, non-doctrinaire bloke (or woman) in the street who just wants to be left alone to prosper, and to have their values remain unmolested; but Mr Cameron has been determined to change everybody else’s thinking to his, even though it is of a highly rarefied nature. Second, it needs someone to push the bounds of what is considered possible, by having the courage to challenge the centre-left consensus. And third, it needs someone with some bottle-age and some experience.
There is little of that about, not least because Mr Cameron has never liked having about him people who have done it before and who know where the traps are. Unfortunately, the British John Howard doesn’t exist; and if he did, Dave Cameron would hate him.
Simon Heffer is political columnist of the Daily Mail and author of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House), out next month.