There is a weirdness about the Conservative predicament. The Conservative party has won all the great intellectual and political battles of the last quarter-century. It has defined — and continues to define — the public argument over the role of the state, the acceptable level of taxation, the nature of the economy, the power of trade unions, the scope of public services and the limits of the European Union.
Looking back, with the aid of hindsight, it is possible to see that the Conservative administration of 1979–97 was perhaps the most illustrious and creative peacetime government of modern British history. It headed off economic collapse, gave security and prosperity to millions of people, restored our broken national pride and turned the tide of history.
More striking still, the ideas of the Thatcher/Major period were so strong that they continue to dominate policy-making now that New Labour is in power. Peace in Northern Ireland, perhaps Tony Blair’s least equivocal success, owes everything to the deal struck with the IRA by John Major. The continued strength of the British economy, in such contrast to France and Germany, is the product of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial and immensely courageous supply-side reforms of the 1980s: Chancellor Brown now acts as Margaret Thatcher’s apostle every time he urges economic reform on our European partners.
But the most striking example of this continuing Conservative triumph is last weekend’s referendum result in France. It was Tory party pressure which forced Tony Blair, previously strongly opposed, into announcing a British referendum. President Jacques Chirac was then shamed into taking the same step, with fatal results.
Benjamin Disraeli, long before he became prime minister, defined ‘Tory men and Whig measures’ as the basis for a sound administration. The most helpful definition of Tony Blair’s administration is ‘Labour men and Tory measures’. It is, of course, politically important for the Prime Minister to reject this charge. He does this partly by misrepresentation. New Labour publicly demonises Margaret Thatcher, while privately admiring her and accepting her many insights. Tony Blair viciously attacked Tory measures to modernise the health service through the introduction of the internal market when in opposition, scrapped them after taking power in 1997, and has now — after five wasted years — brought them back under a different name.
This sleight of hand is understandable from the Prime Minister. He needs to reassure his supporters. It is the reaction of the Conservatives, not Labour, which is confusing. They ought to feel rather superior about New Labour success. They are entitled to feel a certain arrogance that, though no longer in office, they remain in power. They should continue to feel proud of their record in government, and calmly wait for New Labour to mess up.
Instead we have had eight years of whingeing, self-hatred, mortification and general misery, of which this summer’s prolonged leadership contest is the latest manifestation. The most blameworthy are the so-called modernisers, the group which occupies a temporary ascendancy within the official Conservative party. Members of this faction fill the critical posts of shadow chancellor and party chairman as well as various other key appointments. They are favoured for some reason by Michael Howard, and occupy powerful positions in the leader’s office.
And yet they seem to have little idea of what the Tory party is for. Dedicated followers of fashion, they are transfixed by the short-term success of New Labour, reluctant to look below the surface, only too happy to accept credulously the government’s account of itself. Recently Michael Portillo, one of the leading apologists for this faction, wrote in his influential Sunday Times column that Chancellor Brown ‘has singlehandedly delivered all the things of which the government can be proud, including the longest period of growth in Britain’s industrial history’. This was an odd comment, since the first five years of this period of growth, which Portillo attributed to the ‘singlehanded’ achievement of the Chancellor, occurred under a Conservative government of which he himself was a leading member.
The modernisers have got it locked into their heads that the Tories are — to quote Theresa May — ‘nasty’. There is no evidence at all for this proposition except Labour party propaganda repeated endlessly on the BBC and in the left-leaning broadsheet press. Yet the modernisers credulously swallow it. This automatic cringe to metropolitan opinion goes so deep that one moderniser, Andrew Lansley, now suggests that the Conservatives should change their name. Apart from that, they have added nothing of substance to the debate. There are reported to have been a number of agonised meetings, and much fretting about what to do next, but they cannot even reach an agreement about a common candidate. The modernisers are beyond question the most useless political alliance of modern times, and their inertia and hopelessness may have handed the Conservative party leadership to David Davis. The most interesting question that remains to be asked about them is which one will be first to make an accommodation with the Davis camp.
Admittedly Davis’s campaign is as empty of intellectual content as the modernisers are. It has made up for this important omission by briefing to the press about his escapades during his tough council-estate boyhood in south London. This tactic is working well. The Davis campaign has been led by a small group of hatchet men who have been sticking the knife, with unconcealed enjoyment, into both the party leader Michael Howard and fellow candidates.
This strategy may have gone too far, and last weekend there were clear signs of retreat. One Sunday broadsheet newspaper was offered an article by a Davis supporter and a reasonably senior member of Michael Howard’s front-bench team. This article called for Howard to quit this summer. The comment pages were cleared, and the splash made ready, when at the last moment the article was pulled. Instead, David Davis offered some propitiatory noises about the Howard leadership through the pages of the Sunday Telegraph, doubtless a wiser course of action.
There is only one potential candidate for the Tory leadership who is conducting himself in the way Michael Howard envisaged when he opened the door for a six-month-long leadership contest, and that is the trade and industry spokesman David Willetts. While other Conservatives have been plotting, Willetts has been thinking. While other candidates have been sticking the knife in each others’ backs, Willetts has put pen to paper. Willetts is sometimes pigeonholed as a moderniser, but he suffers from none of the self-hatred and lack of confidence that are the defining characteristics of that gloom-ridden and curiously old-fashioned group. There are plenty of politicians on the Right happy to say why it’s a terrible thing to be Tory. Only Willetts has so far shown himself capable — as his speech to the Social Market Foundation this week shows — of reminding us why it’s still rather splendid to be a Conservative.