For some time it was not polite to utter the phrase ‘core vote’ at a Conservative party gathering, or within earshot of those loyal to the leadership. It referred, after all, to people who believed taxation was theft, who despised the European Union and all it stood for, who venerated the monocultural society and saw no difficulty with mediaeval punishments for criminals. To suggest the Tory party’s core vote was something to be cherished, respected and, indeed, catered for was akin to dropping an especially pungent fart at the proverbial vicarage tea party. Throughout the Hague years, and the Duncan Smith years, and (until now) the Howard months, this remained unchanged. ‘The core vote’, a senior shadow minister told me two or three years ago, ‘has nowhere else to go. What we need to concentrate on are the people in the middle who need to be tempted back to us.’
This ignorant notion had its roots in the entirely wrong analysis of the disaster in 1997, when some people decided the Tory party had lost the election not because John Major was one of the worst prime ministers in living memory, but because it was ‘too right-wing’. So you had Mrs May, at the party’s last Bournemouth conference two years ago, telling her troops that they were ‘nasty’. You have had something entitled a ‘gay summit’, at which the few Tories who could be bothered to be interested turned up to demonstrate their regard for homosexuals. You have had exertions by the Conservative Central Office candidates’ department to put as many black and female people on to the party’s candidates list, apparently irrespective of their merit. And, above all, you have had endless pussyfooting around on the crucial subject of whether or not to cut taxes, for fear of the effect this might have on the nation’s beloved public services.
This strategy did not exactly work. Revolted by the transparent insincerity, opportunism and cynicism of the new ‘philosophy’, non-core voters have indeed ended their flirtation with New Labour and gone off to support the Liberal Democrats — if they can bear to support anyone, that is. As for the core vote who supposedly had nowhere else to go, well, now they have. Perhaps the announcement by the capricious Mr Paul Sykes that he will no longer bankroll Ukip because of its desire to ‘kill’ the Conservative party will take the wind out of the anti-Europeans’ sails. However, so long as Ukip can contest seats held by Tories, or winnable by them, the core vote will continue to be attracted to support the most traditionally conservative party in the field. One of the more talented members of the shadow Cabinet painstakingly explained to me over a plate of roast beef how things were not as bad as they seemed, and how the party’s appeal to its apostates to come back into the congregation would succeed in time for the general election. Moments after we had parted, one of his junior colleagues, a man of no less intelligence, came up to me and said: ‘We must talk. It’s looking bad. Bloody Ukip. It could be Armageddon.’
So it was Mr Howard’s job on Tuesday, when he made his keynote speech to the conference, to continue to put the old strategy into reverse. The process began the previous day when the co-chairman of the party, Dr Liam Fox, banged on about the evils of the European Union and the need to be tough on asylum, crime and taxation. No longer, it seemed, is the core vote to be taken for granted: the priority now is to ensure that no more of them clear off. Without them, the Tory party isn’t even an opposition, let alone in line to form a government. Dr Fox gave no detail; and nor, really, did Mr Howard. This is an adherence to the methods followed by Mrs Thatcher before she came to power in 1979: deal in the broad brush, give them an idea of what you want to do, and leave it until you get into power actually to fill in the detail, not least because some of it might frighten the horses.
Certainly, Mr Howard was right to dwell on the issue of trust, which has poisoned the public’s view of Mr Blair, just as a decade ago it was poisoning their view of a Conservative government that refused to take responsibility for a series of profound economic failures. However, the party’s policy vacuum, which worked so well in the late 1970s, is unsuited to the modern political age. In an era of 24-hour news channels, the Internet and cynicism about politicians, there is now too much scope for scrutiny, and too little benefit of the doubt. It would be wrong to confuse the now chronically low turnout at elections with a lack of interest in policy. Mrs Thatcher’s era in power politicised the nation through the economic liberties it gave to individuals. Many of them cannot bring themselves to vote because they find nothing they wish to vote for.
The great handicap the Tories were under at Bournemouth was that too many of those present were (despite Mr Howard’s well-received speech and its clear sense of direction) focusing not on next May, but on 2009, the election when for the first time in 15 years they will not be confronted with Mr Blair. There was, at least, no talk in the party about finding a new leader, despite Mr Howard’s lack of success so far. A year ago, a few unfashionable souls said there was no point in removing Mr Duncan Smith because the problem was not with the leadership. That turned out to be true. Certainly, as many have been saying, there is no point in the Tories repeating the old process of losing another election and celebrating it by ditching the leader. However bad things are next May — if that is when Mr Blair calls the poll — hardly anyone wants Mr Howard to go, not least because of the paucity of those who might replace him. In public, of course, the leader cannot admit to expecting anything other than victory. In private, though, he needs to start to plan what he is going to do with his party after a third, perhaps heavy, defeat. In the last two Parliaments too much time was lost rearranging the furniture. Next time, the sense of purpose and direction needs to be present from day one, and preferably under the same leader as now.
In order to minimise that defeat, Mr Howard now needs to start to bring forward coherent and detailed policies. These can then be developed and carried on in the (regrettably likely) third session of opposition. He needs to listen less to his inexperienced but loyal coterie, and more to older hands who might occasionally annoy him by challenging him, but who are often right and more in touch with what the Tories’ natural constituency wants. He will also have had time to see who actually are the people of talent in his party, rather than those to whom he simply feels he owes a favour. Before this conference the party seemed completely benighted. Now there are glimmers of light. Provided they are not panicked by the failure of the dawn to break quite as early as they would like, the Tories can at least assure themselves now that they are not dead yet.