It is hardly unprecedented for rising Tories to fall out with their seniors, and vice versa. Before the war, Anthony Eden’s friends used to complain about the ‘Old Gang’ around Neville Chamberlain. The gangsters retaliated by sneering at the ‘Glamour Boys’. Now some of today’s glamour boys are said to be irritated with the ‘bed-blockers’: older MPs who prefer to serve on when they should be creating vacancies for brilliant youth. There is nothing unusual in any of that — but Tories of an earlier epoch would be bewildered by their successors’ eagerness to inflate every trivial dispute into a headline. Many of today’s Tories insist on approaching every problem with an open mouth.
This has led some commentators to wonder whether bed-blocking might be a graver matter than the Parliamentary tenacity of a handful of knights and dames. Could it be that the real bed-blocker is the Tory party itself? The most recent history of the Tories, by John Ramsden, is entitled An Appetite For Power. The text vindicates the title, describing the way in which each Tory generation responded to power like iron filings to a magnet. In those days, the Tories regarded themselves as the national party, virtually entitled to freehold possession of 10 Downing Street.
That has ceased to be true. Though the Tories still occupy a prime site on the Right of British politics, they no longer seem capable of developing it. Malcontents such as Peter Hitchens would argue that the party has become the Left’s unwitting accessory: too weak to win its way back to government, but strong enough to prevent the emergence of a more effective right-wing challenger.
It is easy to marshal a counter-case. The shrewdest analyst of contemporary public opinion is anything but convinced that the Tories are moribund. If Tony Blair were, he would be less subject to stress. As it is, even after seven years in power, he often gives the impression of feeling like an interloper who can only survive if he makes regular raids on Tory rhetoric and Tory clothing.
All the opinion-poll evidence suggests that Mr Blair is wise to be worried. On law and order, political correctness and Europe, the majority of the British people hold robust right-wing views; hence Tony Blair’s reluctance to confront Euroscepticism. Yet it could be argued that this all demonstrates the depth of the Tory party’s difficulties. If Mr Blair believes that the silent majority is Tory, why are the Tories unable to persuade it to give tongue? Nor is this a new problem. The Tory party has been under-exploiting Tory potential for at least 25 years, because of two chronic problems: Thatcherism and class.
Margaret Thatcher was a great Prime Minister; she was never a popular one. Yes, she won large parliamentary majorities, but that is because the British electoral system punishes divided oppositions. From 1979 to 1987, her average winning percentage was lower than Alec Douglas-Home’s losing one in 1964, and she was only able to achieve those unimpressive figures because she was up against Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Under such leaders, the Left could not win.
But it was still able to inflict long-term damage on the Tories. During much of the Eighties, the Left was writing the history. While Mrs Thatcher was spending like a social democrat, the Lefties went on and on about the ‘cuts’. Many voters believed them. By the end of the Eighties, the Tories were seen as selfish and uncaring.
That did not matter as long as Labour was unelectable. The party with no heart will always beat the party with no head. Then Labour suppressed its self-destructive urges, just when the Tories were about to spend several years gnawing their own entrails, while the third party was changing character. Instead of the SDP splitting the Labour vote, the Liberals were challenging the Tories in the south and southwest. Suddenly, the reputation for heartlessness did matter, as did a widespread belief that the Tories were out of touch with the people.
There, distaste for Thatcherite selfishness intersects with class and the Tories are doubly penalised. Although social deference is almost extinct, this has not created an England at ease with itself. A lot of the English are still obsessed with class and quick to take against anyone, or any institution, with ties to traditional elites. Although the Tory party has been socially inclusive for at least a generation, it is still the victim of class antagonism.
Michael Howard’s advisers are aware of this. Some of them refer to the SRC question. SRC stands for Spoilt Rich ... etc., and according to the Tories’ opinion research, that is how they are widely viewed. A lot of voters assume that Tories never have to worry about next month’s bills and have no idea how most people live.
This is compounded by lifestyle resentments. After all, there are plenty of SRCs in New Labour. But they seem more acceptable because they are thought to be part of a trendy pop world which ordinary people can at least dream about. The Labour SRC goes on holiday with Cliff Richard and goes shopping with Mrs Beckham. The Tory SRC is assumed to have sprung from the womb with a shotgun and green wellies. Thereafter, he spends all his time in bizarre aristocratic rituals, which are simultaneously incomprehensible and sinister, and which generally involve the slaughter of innocent animals.
That brings us to another element of the Tories’ problem. A lot of city-dwellers no longer see them as an urban party. This is especially awkward in England, where the townies have less understanding of the countryside than any other urbanites ever. England is full of foodies who cannot bear to think about what goes into an andouillette and of environmentalists who think that Beatrix Potter was writing about real life. So the Tories are twice cursed, for not understanding the cities and for trying to dispel the city-dwellers’ fantasies about the country.
‘They don’t know who we are and some of them wonder whether we come from another planet.’ That was how one Tory opinion researcher summarised his party’s position. He was also aware that, given voter apathy, this is a bad time to lack a strong brand image. Labour has the Blair image: tarnished, not what it was, yet at least the consumers know the name. The Liberals are the none-of-the-above party; the protest vehicle, which is not a bad niche in the market when so many voters feel like protesting. But the Tories? Even apart from selfishness and the SRC factor, at least half of the average voter’s impression of the Tory party was created by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.
The party is planning a policy and communications offensive, starting in September. The intention is to use new language and fresh voices, in order to reconnect with the towns and to avoid sounding like a group of SRCs. The party will be trying to renew contact with the millions of voters who think Tory but vote something else, or not at all. It would be foolish to assume that this is doomed to failure. An impressive amount of energy and intellect is being mobilised. But the party has only months to reverse the neglect of many years. An election-winning strategy may well emerge. But will it be for 2005, or 2009?