Peter Oborne

If the Tories want to win the asylum debate, they must trust their own instincts

If the Tories want to win the asylum debate, they must trust their own instincts

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In the aftermath of September 11 we all instinctively felt that the world had utterly changed. In Britain at any rate that turned out not to be the case. After the initial shock, things carried on to some extent as before.

But the return to normality was illusory and short-lived. September 11 indeed created new and frightening structures. In America they locked into place at once. But the new order took a long time indeed to cross the Atlantic. It finally did so in the first three or four weeks of this year.

The Prime Minister set the tone, in his bleak New Year address. The wrapping-up of terror networks throughout Europe and in Britain has added to a sense of impending calamity. So has the steady build-up of troops in the Middle East. Crashing stock markets, artificially strong for months after 9/11 because central banks printed billions of dollars, now warn of urgent economic dangers.

All this has brought a sharp change to the temper of public debate. Hope has turned to fear, optimism to paranoia, confidence to unease. The parameters of public policy have altered. Tony Blair made a speech last week in which he reasserted the importance of public-service reform. It was a bold effort, but public services are no longer the priority. National security has become the dominant issue, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

It is a measure of New Labour's still sharp political sensitivity that the government, not the Conservative party, was the quicker to adapt to the new environment. Tony Blair, alerted to the scale of voter concern by his ever-vigilant political consultant Philip Gould, has been engaged with the asylum issue for months. The Prime Minister gave ministers a long analysis of the problem in Cabinet on 23 January; he asserted that it was the one domestic issue that has the potential to blow the government completely off course; possibly cost it the next general election. Three days later he told Sir David Frost that Britain was ready to contemplate resiling from the European Convention on Human Rights, the vexatious treaty which ministers blame for their failure to expel even the most evil terrorists.

It is typical of the Conservative party disorder that even this perfunctory Downing Street operation to take the initiative on asylum-seekers flatfooted Iain Duncan Smith. One would have expected the Conservatives to have done well from the disquieting set of circumstances that prevail at the start of 2003. According to the textbooks, a shift in focus from public services to national identity and defence plays to Tory strengths, whereas New Labour, historically more fastidious on immigration and less committed to the armed forces, should be all at sea.

The Conservative party finds itself in this predicament partly because, ever since the 1997 election defeat, it has grown ashamed of its instincts. An interesting case in point is Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary. There is no doubt that Letwin is one of the most interesting and attractive politicians to have emerged in any political party for decades. His distinctive contribution has been the restoration of intelligent debate to Westminster. Almost single-handedly he has ended the arid whips-office culture that equated bold and original thinking with dissent. Letwin has never been afraid to ponder aloud, and he is so patently decent and enthusiastic that he has educated everyone else into allowing him to do so.

In the months that followed September 11 Letwin emerged as a champion of civil liberties, and made the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, look ever more leaden-footed. While previous Conservative home affairs spokespeople, like Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard, were demonised, Letwin became a hero among the chattering classes. Bagehot once wrote of Robert Peel that he was the sort of politician who courts the good opinion of his opponents. Letwin, who last week informed readers of the Guardian website that 'I am not really a Tory', falls neatly into this category, to which Chris Patten and Rab Butler also belonged. Patten, over lunch with Leftist journalists, unfailingly gave the impression that his membership of the Conservative party was all some dreadful mistake, thus ensuring for himself the sycophantic profiles which so greatly irritated his Cabinet colleagues. Butler went to the extreme lengths of arranging the services of a member of the chattering classes, Anthony Howard, as his official biographer, thus ensuring a far better posthumous reputation than his in many respects disgraceful career really deserved.

This love affair with the metropolitan Left has now got Letwin into trouble, as might readily have been predicted. Ever since the alleged murder of a Manchester policeman by an asylum-seeker two weeks ago, Conservative policies have been up in the air. Had the party stuck to William Hague's and Ann Widdecombe's modestly tough policies on asylum, the Conservatives might have looked consistent, statesmanlike and ahead of the game. As it is they faced the prospect of explaining away a third U-turn in two years.

It can only have been the thoroughly understandable desire to avoid a Hagueite jerk to the Right that stayed Iain Duncan Smith's hand for so long last week. Eager to avoid the impression of intemperate haste, party spokesmen held back from producing fresh policies. However, in order to dispel the impression of total inertia, they took the precaution of announcing that an announcement was in the offing. Thus forewarned, Tony Blair leapt into the breach - or at any rate the gap between the two Conservative announcements - on Breakfast with Frost last Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith finally catching up a day or two later.

Now that the bidding war between the two parties on asylum is under way, it is only fair to state that the Conservative proposals look far better thought out. Tony Blair's scheme to meddle with the European Convention looks at best scatty, at worst meaningless. Within two or three days, Beverley Hughes, a junior Home Office minister, was casting doubt whether it could ever be made to work. This has always been the problem with New Labour. Whenever Gould's focus groups get worked up about asylum - or any other issue attracting tabloid attention - the Prime Minister responds with an ostensibly strong but in reality vapid statement. Two years ago there was the promise, now broken, to repatriate 30,000 failed asylum-seekers a year. Now there is the pledge to re-examine the entire basis of asylum law. The trouble with these wild assertions from the Prime Minister and others is that they raise expectations, but do not deliver. This is reckless and irresponsible.

The results of this recklessness were seen in the Halifax council election last week, won by the BNP. Commentators on this unnerving result defined Halifax as a Labour heartland. But this is by no means the case. Until Alice Mahon's victory in 1987, Halifax was held by a Tory MP. Menacingly, the Tory candidate came a distant fourth to the BNP. The asylum debate demonstrates the detachment of the political/media class at Westminster from the country at large. By failing to connect with their supporters, the Conservatives are not merely jeopardising their own future; they are sowing the seeds of something quite horrible.