Andrew Gimson

The Conservatives have hardly ever had it so good

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Pessimism among Conservative candidates, extending to anguished doubt about their deficiencies as public speakers and their general ability to stay the course, is nothing new. As Chips Channon asked himself in his diary for 20 February 1934:

Am I wise to embrace a Parliamentary career - can I face the continued strain? James Willoughby told me today that he nearly gave up his Parliamentary campaign in November, as he just could not stand the ordeal of speaking: when he confessed this to his agent, the man replied, 'Don't let not speaking well dishearten you: I have known candidates who could not even read.'

We must all hope that in its restless quest to mirror the British people, the Conservative party will launch a drive to increase the proportion of its candidates who cannot read, but at least it already possesses an impressive number who cannot speak particularly well. Speaking with spurious ease is the stock-in-trade of the media class, a group which may well, as Craig Brown said in Tuesday's Daily Telegraph, be 'ever-expanding', but which inspires a certain scepticism among the general public. If the Conservative party has any point, it is surely to steer clear of such people. Faced by a choice between metropolitan glamour and the dowdy but enduring life of the provinces, it must know in its bones that its place lies with the provinces.

The future is bright for the Conservatives precisely because they are unfashionable. New Labour is like the new economy: a bubble so immense and so seemingly durable that even sober people have been forced to take it seriously. A few months before the boom in high-tech stocks collapsed, I remember a stockbroker in Edinburgh, a man of palpable shrewdness and caution, explaining that there was a thing called the new economy, in which all the traditional rules had been suspended. Neither he nor I could quite fathom why the traditional rules had been suspended, but nor could we deny the evidence of our own eyes, which was that people more enterprising than ourselves were making fortunes from Internet shares.

It is fruitless to blame, let alone to envy, Tony Blair for making such a good thing out of rebranding the Labour party. He saw a gap in the market - a desire for the appearance of change without its substance - and this he supplied. But he endures the consequences of his own success. He enjoys a lonely popularity, detested as he is by the dwindling membership of his own party. He employs more advisers than any previous prime minister, but the effort to maintain the fiction that he has real power, or even that he really knows what he wants, becomes ever more exhausting. He is prey to all the corruptions of high office, and has to be continually on his guard against the newly rich men who are so anxious to be his new friends. His old friends, the people who knew and valued him before he became important, despair of the company he keeps. In domestic policy he finds himself dominated by Gordon Brown, and sees a relapse into statism. On the burning question of Iraq he can comfortably ignore what Jack Straw thinks, but not what George Bush decides. On the intractable question of Britain's relations with Europe, his own instincts are at odds with those of the British people, and the result is a vacillation which threatens to make him a laughing stock.

All this presents vast opportunities for the Conservatives. Unlike Mr Blair, they have the luxury of time. They can watch ministers frantically trying to control in minute detail the professional lives of doctors and teachers, and can see the disappointing results of such intrusion, and can know that an approach will soon be needed which does not depend on the absurd proposition that the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best. At the same time they can observe the general public becoming more and more disillusioned with politicians in general. A party which sees a smaller role for government and a greater one for every kind of voluntary association is in tune with the spirit of the age. But this means a party which knows and understands and wishes to perpetuate the British tradition of parliamentary government, which long rested on the assumption that there are great tracts of our life where politicians and bureaucrats have no damn business telling us what to do. Our liberties are best defended because we have always had them, or at least have had them for a very long time. They are hereditary. We did not acquire them because some gracious committee of international jurists conferred them on us after drawing up a high-sounding statement of abstract principles.

Some Conservatives may feel pessimistic about their prospects as they return from their holidays, but though pessimism is a fitting emotion for a Conservative, they also need a measure of patience. They must resist the urge to offer short-cuts, or the delusion that short-cuts exist. The last thing the electorate wishes to be presented with is a set of half-baked policies for achieving heaven on earth some time by the middle of next year. William Hague was too inclined to let himself be drawn into that kind of auction. One of Iain Duncan Smith's great virtues is his reticence. It would be absurd to imagine that under a different leader the party would be in a more prosperous condition.

That said, and when all due respect has been paid to his authentically dull way with words, Mr Duncan Smith would be well advised to find a speech-writer capable of explaining to his party, and even to the wider world, why conservatism, understood as a doctrine of limited government, is more in tune with the modern age than anything dreamt of by Mr Blair. There is an awkward but not insurmountable paradox here. How does one use political rhetoric to demonstrate that one is not just another glib politician intent on spinning his way into Downing Street? The answer, perhaps, lies in an unashamedly traditional tone of voice, informed by a deep knowledge and love of British political history, but rendered delightful by self-mockery.

The historian Alistair B. Cooke, to whom I am indebted for the Channon quote above and who edited six volumes of the Conservatives' campaign guide, is a master of that tone. Someone of that kind is needed for those awkward occasions, such as the party conference, when Mr Duncan Smith has to address quite large audiences.