Peter Oborne

Tories at Westminster are filled with optimism, much of it misplaced

Tories at Westminster are filled with optimism, much of it misplaced

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There is a substantial monograph to be written on the relationship between the Prime Minister and Margaret Thatcher. It began with abject, one-sided adoration. Colleagues recall Tony Blair, as a youngish MP, meeting Thatcher. They say it was embarrassing, the look of dog-like devotion he gave her.

The second stage came when Tony Blair was leader of the opposition. He did everything he could to suck up. He told her ardent supporters on the Tory Right — above all the group of Eurosceptic death-squadders whose hatred of John Major was so intense that they favoured anything else, including a Labour government — how much he admired her. These conversations were part of a conscious strategy to give out the impression that Blair was Thatcher’s real successor.

This was not quite as cynical as it seemed. Tony Blair really believed it himself. So, come to that, did Margaret Thatcher. Once New Labour was in power, Tony Blair invited her to Downing Street, and sought her opinion on how to govern the country. In due course, Peter Mandelson gilded the lily, pronouncing that ‘we are all Thatcherites now’.

Then, as Tony Blair’s fortunes weakened, he changed his mind. The pivotal moment came in July 2002 when the Prime Minister denounced his former heroine in response to a parliamentary question from the Labour MP Stephen Pound. From that moment on, Tony Blair has judged it more profitable to ingratiate himself with the Labour party by damning Thatcher than be true to himself and praise her. This strategy reaches its logical conclusion in this summer’s local and European elections.

So far as can be judged from Tuesday’s launch, the Labour campaign is based on the proposition that a) Margaret Thatcher was monstrous, evil and malevolent, and b) she is still in charge of the Conservative party, through her faithful instrument Michael Howard. Gordon Brown’s humourless exposition was filled with denunciations of Thatcherite ‘extremism’, while his disciple Douglas Alexander mentioned the former Prime Minister over and over again.

There was a time — under both John Major and William Hague — when this kind of attempt to identify the Conservative party with Thatcherism would have given rise to panic. Michael Howard’s leadership is so assured that he is completely relaxed. Thanks to Howard, the Conservative party has finally made its peace with Margaret Thatcher. This shone through Tuesday night’s great dinner in central London to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her first election victory. But for a few entirely understandable absentees — John Major, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe — the party came together to celebrate the woman who Michael Howard accurately called the greatest prime minister since Churchill. For 14 years, ever since the assassination of November 1990, Thatcher has troubled the Tories like Banquo’s ghost. Not the least of Michael Howard’s achievements is that he has laid that ghost to rest.

Howard’s leadership faces its greatest test in this summer’s elections. There is much optimism in the Tory camp, most of it misplaced. Conservatives are making a mistake if they think that the new mood of confidence at Westminster has transferred itself to the country at large. It has not.

First, the London mayoral elections. There Steve Norris, thanks to his short-sighted, selfish and greedy decision to accept the chairmanship of contractors Jarvis, is a calamity. Norris spent last week whingeing about the unscrupulous Liberal Democrat campaign to link him to the Potters Bar rail crash. What else did he expect? There is a genuine chance that Norris will come third — a humiliation for him and catastrophe for the Conservatives.

Second, the European elections. It is easy to forget quite how well William Hague performed, on an extremely low turnout, last time. New Labour has moved to fix the problem. Tony Blair’s U-turn on the constitution referendum has caused him all manner of internal troubles. But by taking the constitution out of the equation, he has removed Michael Howard’s trump card. Just as important, the so-called ‘pilot schemes’ for compulsory postal ballots — affecting millions of voters, exclusively in core Labour areas — should get the vote out. The Conservatives are likely to lose, not gain, seats next month.

Third, the local elections. Here the Conservative problem is greatest of all. These local contests are likely to drive home the sheer horror of the Conservative national predicament: its failure in big Northern and Midland cities. Twenty-five years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was first elected, the Conservatives held Oldham. Now they have no more than a scattering of councillors in the town. This story is repeated all over the North and Midlands. In what looked like a piece of New Labour spin to animate activists, Wednesday’s Guardian predicted that the Tories would win Birmingham. They are more likely to come third. Polling day next month will only demonstrate the awesome height of the mountain that the Conservative party still has to climb. Michael Howard’s leadership has arrested the party’s collapse, but the Conservatives are a very long way indeed from a return to power.

The most noteworthy, and saddest, event this week was the death of the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke served with distinction as a minister in the Macmillan and Douglas-Home governments in the early 1960s. He attributed his promotion to ‘gross nepotism’ by his brother-in-law Harold Macmillan, remarking that, ‘I think we had given him some good shooting.’ Ministerial office was, however, the least of many attainments of this modest, wise, tolerant and civilised man.

Four years ago Labour abolished the hereditary peerage in the House of Lords, and the Duke was turfed out. Last weekend’s list of working peers well conjured up the spirit of the new institution. There are three former Labour MPs: Peter Snape, John Maxton and Ted Rowlands. Whoever drew up this list brought them back from richly deserved obscurity not because they are distinguished, or wise, or have anything to offer. Their one merit is their readiness to run errands for Downing Street. The same criteria were applied to the selection of former trade unionists. Richard Rosser, the former general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, is a nonentity even within the trade union movement, let alone the wider world. The list was completed by a dim collection of Labour placemen — Jan Royall, Neil Kinnock’s former press officer, is a typical example — and an unsavoury collection of Conservative party money men, about whom the less said the better. Only the mysterious presence of the television executive Jane Bonham Carter as a Liberal Democrat peeress redeems this shameful list. Like the Duke of Devonshire, she has done nothing to earn her preferment and brings a hint of more gracious days and happier times.