Simon Heffer

The Tory beauty contest is enough to bring on an attack of terminal revulsion

The Tory beauty contest is enough to bring on an attack of terminal revulsion

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Meanwhile, back at the Tory party, they are still looking for a new leader. Thanks to the perceived brilliance of the Prime Minister — he has fed Africa, secured the 2012 Olympics and now crossed the Rhine in what the editor of this organ prefers not to call the war on terrorism — many Tory MPs have lost interest in the not unimportant question of who will succeed Michael Howard. Until Mr Blair resigns, it’s game off. One or two leadership candidates privately profess admiration for him. One ex-minister, almost unique in not yet being a candidate himself, told me this was ‘the most f—ing depressing period in the party’s history’. Another, a former long-serving whip, retailed with astonishment his impressions of an article in praise of David Davis that he had read in a supposedly serious newspaper. ‘Once I reached the bits that I knew about,’ said the ex-whip, who has observed the heir presumptuous at close quarters over several years, ‘I realised it was absolute bollocks.’ Just to even things up, two veteran supporters of David Cameron professed that even if he were to win he would be ‘shredded’ by the media within a year as William Hague was, because of his inexperience.

An observation from another ex-frontbencher, though, was the most pertinent. ‘We have stopped thinking. We have stopped offering any idea of what we might stand for. We have nothing new to offer.’ Despite the publication of articles, and even pamphlets, by would-be leaders, and interviews of various degrees of cheesiness in which they have been able to share their world view, he is right. One such pamphlet, by Mr Michael Ancram (as the Marquess of Lothian still oddly insists on calling himself), does indeed admit that the party’s failure at the last three elections ‘was largely because the vast majority of the British people did not know what a Conservative really was or what we stood for’. The ensuing canter round the houses of conservatism is, rather like its author, benign, but lacking that quality that would seize the imagination of a sceptical public. Of the other most visible candidates, we need not doubt that Mr Davis, or Mr Cameron, or even Mr Willetts has an idea of what he would do: but it is hardly riveting, or even coherent. It is not just that personalities have been brought into the argument, with accusations that Mr Davis is a council-house tough, or that Mr Cameron is a smarmy Old Etonian, or that Mr Willetts has had a charisma by-pass. It is that personalities have become the argument. It is no wonder the public cannot bear to be interested. Indeed, it is probably as well, since any wider understanding of what is really going on would cause terminal revulsion.

Those at the centre of the party would like to plagiarise Tony Blair, but know it would be suicidal; those on the Right want to take up the legacy of Mrs Thatcher, but fear frightening the horses should they even hint at it. Therefore both breeds of Tory choose to obscure what, if anything, they believe in, and prefer instead to conduct a beauty contest. Such a vacuum can result in one of two things at the next election: a fourth Labour majority, or a Lib Dem–Labour coalition. It can do no good for the Tory party at all. The avoidance not of policy — for if you squeeze even the dimmest potential candidate, she will utter some programme for the future — but of a compelling vision by which a candidate, and later a party, will stand or fall, is a terrible wasted opportunity. It wastes, above all, the opportunity to do something absolutely vital for Tory success: to make the electorate boil with anger at the incompetence and dishonesty of the Labour party, and to make them long to be governed better, and by someone else.

It doesn’t even need to be a candidate who does this: it could be any influential figure in the Tory party. Mrs Thatcher, who was the last Tory leader to have a vision, was presented with it by Keith Joseph, who had himself acquired much of it from Enoch Powell. Nor do you need a Wilson/Callaghan style Old Labour government in order to mount an effective opposition. There is quite enough being done wrongly by the present reformed Labour administration to give a thoughtful candidate, or his guru, much to talk about. And it can all be done without recourse to the methadone of modern politics, the focus group.

At a time when we are highly taxed, have inadequate public services, are about to have our civil liberties circumscribed in a variety of ways that include ID cards and a Bill to outlaw so-called ‘religious hatred’, and live in a culture that is increasingly controlled and regulated by the absurdities of the Health and Safety Executive, there is surely a strong case to be made for the Tories to advance a new vision of the relationship between the individual and the state. To put that in philosophical terms would send most people to sleep. However, to highlight the expropriation of money from people and businesses, the wilful destruction of personal freedoms, the excess of regulation and the creation of a vast, Labour-voting state bureaucracy might not be quite so boring. A crucial part of this vision, of course, is sacking lots of people from unproductive jobs in the public sector; but arguing, persuasively, that the money saved by this and returned to the taxpayer will stimulate the demand to employ many of them in the private sector. After all, as in the periods after 1979 and 1997, the coming of a new administration would need to result in a greatly altered landscape by the end of the first term.

Then, having redefined in a far less statist way the relationship between the government and the governed, the Tories might like to take the institution most attacked by Labour — the nation itself — and seek to make it the core and underpinning of its future vision. This, of course, requires an unequivocal defence of sovereignty, and an acceptance that the collaboration with the federalising project that distinguished the party’s policy on Europe in its last few years in office, must be formally buried. The Tories might like to justify this on the grounds of safeguarding our democracy, our economic sovereignty and preserving accountability: it would, after all, be true.

Mr Ancram says that his pamphlet is not a policy statement, but an outline of principles around which the party might coalesce. Sadly, coalition may not be what is required. It is time for the Tories to come off the fence, stop pretending to be the Labour party, and to advance a clear and radically different view of the future of our country. Avoiding radical and decisive change in the hope of appealing to everybody simply won’t work. A compelling vision that attracts, as Mrs Thatcher’s did and Mr Blair’s still does, enough votes to win and secure power, will. All we now need is someone to think it, and someone with the passion and credibility to advance it.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.