Simon Heffer

The way ahead for the Conservatives

Simon Heffer says that Michael Howard must remain Tory leader, and the party must return to its belief in small government and deregulation

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If we political pundits were truly blessed with the gift of accurate prophecy, we would not be writing about one of the most sordid subjects known to man. We would be earning shedloads of money as astrologers, with premium-rate telephone lines conveying our charlatanry to the masses, and conveying the masses’ money back to us. Since by the time you read this we will be having, or will just have had, the most unpredictable election of modern times, it is harder than ever to base any argument on its likely outcome. I had better risk humiliation, therefore, by stating that what follows is based on the unkind assumption that on Friday afternoon Mrs Michael Howard will not be measuring up for curtains in No. 10 Downing Street.

A third consecutive defeat is something that has not happened to the Conservative party since December 1910, when Asquith received a mandate of sorts to proceed with reform of the Lords in the face of the Upper House’s recalcitrance over the People’s Budget of the previous year. Even then, though, the Liberal government could rule only with the help of Irish Nationalists, a fact that itself would make the next few years fraught with difficulties, even before the Great War turned up. Perhaps a surge in support for the successor party, the Liberal Democrats, at this election will have helped let in dozens of Tory candidates. Perhaps Mr Blair’s majority might be drastically reduced or obliterated altogether. Perhaps. But with the party bumping along in the low to mid-30s in the opinion polls, and even when faced with a discredited prime minister and government, that overall Tory victory looks as far away as ever.

So what should the Tories do now? Irrespective of whether they have hardly improved their position at all, or whether they have made substantial gains, one thing is vital: stability. Older members will recall the legendary words of the late Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, a backbencher in the days when a good war and a double-barrelled moniker were a passport to a safe seat and the admiration of the electorate: ‘Pro bono publico, nil bloody panico.’

First and foremost, that means Michael Howard continuing for the foreseeable future as leader of the party. John Major had to leave immediately after the 1997 debacle, not least since his own arrogance, selfishness and stupidity had in large measure brought it about. William Hague’s departure on the dawn after the 2001 defeat was itself arrogant, selfish and stupid. What the Tory party then needed after such a trauma was continuity and a period of reflection. Instead, in the vacuum Mr Hague created, internecine conflict could thrive, and a climate could be created in which the result of the subsequent leadership contest was never accepted by a large proportion of the parliamentary party.

There is no need for the party to stage a repeat of that. Expecting the worst, friends of Mr Howard have been urging him to do nothing precipitate in the wake of a third drubbing. No clear answer had come back by the eve of poll. But Mr Howard is a clever man and an ambitious one, and he will see that little will be achieved if he chooses to go — quite the reverse, in fact. Despite the unpleasant circumstances of his arrival in the leader’s job — the fabrication of evidence against the blameless wife of the then leader, accusing her of financial impropriety — he has imposed a degree of unity not seen in the party for more than 15 years. Mr Howard will be aware that, further down the food chain, there are two factions waiting to go to war. One of them coalesces around the younger generation of ‘modernisers’, of whom more anon; the other are older, more cunning and more ruthless partisans of Mr David Davis. Were Mr Howard to go, these two rather unlovely groups of operators would be at each other’s throats within seconds.

More to the point, though, is the fundamental question: why on earth should Mr Howard go? What hideous errors has he made that have ensured his party’s defeat? The case against him is rather limited. His economic policy was cowardly and based on incorrect assumptions. He has swallowed the bizarre line that some 40 per cent of GDP needs to be taken by the state from the productive sectors of the economy to pay for largely unreformed, overstaffed and incompetent public services. He has come to see public spending as a good in itself. He has failed to challenge the concept of the big state. As a result, he has failed to inspire people with a vision of freedom, prosperity and enterprise. This was wrong but not, in a country brainwashed by Blairism, fatal. His only other error, related to this, was his hysterical over-reaction to the sensible criticisms of his policy advanced by Mr Howard Flight. That showed an intemperate side to his character, deficient in judgment, which is deeply worrying but, again, remediable.

The case for him is more extensive. He was courageous and right to advance his belief in strict immigration controls, even though it would have been politically correct of him to avoid the issue. He spoke for millions of people in doing so — including many members of the British ethnic minorities who fear a breakdown in race relations if immigration continues unchecked. Mr Howard had no right to remain silent on the question and, heroically, did not. Implicit in his advocacy of border controls was a truly Tory belief in the integrity of the nation, its values and its institutions, not least of which is the rule of law. No party leader, not even Mrs Thatcher in her pomp, has ever made such a stand in modern times. He also stuck to other important issues that resonate with the British people: school discipline, hospitals that don’t kill their patients, more police catching more criminals. Also, he and his party had to deal with not two, but three, main opponents: the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and the BBC, whose tone of institutional leftism was unconcealed throughout the campaign, and must one day be radically dealt with. But, most important of all, Mr Howard fought these battles largely alone. It is said that he does not play well with the British public; but most of his colleagues have an emetic quality that made it imperative that they were not inflicted on the British public. Would Mr David Willetts, brandishing his charisma by-pass, convince you, as a sceptical voter, to place your trust in a Conservative future? Quite.

So, provided Mr Howard can be prevailed upon to stay, there needs to be calm and reflection; and then there needs to be a gradual change in policy and rhetoric. Should Labour’s number of seats be severely depleted, this meditative interlude will need to be truncated, but otherwise it can be proceeded with gently. What the Tories need to have sold to the electorate by the time of the next poll is a vision of the broad sunlit uplands: a land where the economy is booming through the encouragement of private individuals and private enterprise. This does not mean bad public services or a raw deal for the weak and vulnerable. As we saw in the 1980s, extensive welfare provision is possible only when the private sector is booming and paying lots of taxes. Never again can a Conservative party go into an election campaign with hardly anything to offer the electorate except an economic policy identical to Labour’s, and committed to Labour’s large state. This means stepping up the rhetoric of preserving the ‘front-line’ public servants, and committing the party to protecting a 21st-century equivalent of the Deserving Poor. However, it has to go hand in hand with the zealous promulgation of a philosophy of liberating hard-working people from the yoke of the state, and making it not merely right but also exciting for them to take responsibility for themselves and their families. The rhetoric also needs to make expli cit the link between this economic vision and personal liberty. As in the late 1970s, a young generation has become tired of the oppressive and illiberal nature of the all-embracing state, and they need to be inspired and encouraged. Mr Howard, aided by serious thinkers like John Redwood and (if he survives) Oliver Letwin, can achieve this.

Above all, though, the Tories need to become a party relevant to the whole country again, and not led by the so-called ‘modernisers’ with their debauched Portillista ideas of what Britain is like. The obsession with homosexual equality, affirmative action for ethnic minorities and other policies aimed at avoiding ‘nastiness’ were relevant only within a small demographic circle of west London. The rest of Britain shrugged its shoulders with profound uninterest. All that the so-called ‘Notting Hill set’ displayed in their commitment to these social-democratic ideals was an ignorance of true Toryism, a detachment from the mass of the electorate, and their own inexperience and arrogance. Despite the kiss of death planted on him a couple of years ago in these pages by Mr Bruce Anderson, Mr David Cameron may well one day lead the Tory party. However, he and his pals will need to grow up first, and learn something about life outside W11, before they have a prayer of connecting with the mass of the British people.

For the immediate future, though, the priorities are clear. The Tories will be best served by keeping Mr Howard as leader. They would do well to move gradually but irrevocably back towards their erstwhile commitment to a small state and a deregulated environment in which enterprise and prosperity will flourish. They must construct a rhetoric that persuades people of the truth of the assertion that the vulnerable and those in need of compassion are best served by such a society. They must speak to areas where Toryism is all but dead, such as in some of our northern cities, and associate themselves explicitly with the economic advancement and improvement of those areas in a way that, after nearly a decade in power and with a long record of failure, Labour credibly cannot.

Of course, in return for this united appreciation of Mr Howard, Mr Howard has to be grown-up and admit to one or two frailties and promise to do better in the future. He should apologise straight out for the Howard Flight fiasco, admit his over-reaction, and promise that no such intervention will ever take place again to wreck the autonomy of local associations. He should admit that there is a case to be made for a smaller state. And, above all, he should not use his continued leadership to act — as one senior Tory put it to me — ‘as non-executive chairman of the David Cameron leadership campaign’. He has fed youth on royal jelly but it remains politically stunted. A more mature and ideologically forceful approach is essential

However bleak matters might seem this weekend for the Conservatives, they might be a lot bleaker still for Labour. If the majority is small, Labour’s own internal struggle will explode, as Brownites lose their patience with Mr Blair. If it is still large, the despair of Labour’s Left will prove uncontainable, and Mr Blair will be targeted for the settling of scores. All the Tories have to do to benefit from this is keep their heads, and be sure that they have a viable — and distinct — alternative to offer the British people when the time comes. As Enoch Powell once warned them in a similarly low patch nearly 40 years ago, they have nothing to fear but fear itself. But if fear — or uncontainable ambition by certain individuals — destabilises them, then their new role as the natural party of opposition will become firmly institutionalised.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.