As The Spectator went to press this week, the Conservative party hovered on the edge of the greatest electoral catastrophe of its history: a third consecutive election defeat and the certain prospect of 12 years in the wilderness. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It was not nearly so bad after the famous reverses of 1905 and 1945. Even the notorious split over the corn laws in 1846 was more easily remedied. The Tories were back in power (albeit briefly) under Lord Derby by 1852. To discover circumstances as intractable as today’s it is necessary to go back to the 18th century, when the Tories, tainted by treason, formed a permanent opposition for decades at a time.
This is the astonishing achievement of Tony Blair, and he knows it. Three weeks ago I smuggled myself into one of the Prime Minister’s election hustings, closed to all except party members and Downing Street-approved journalists. He informed this select audience that it was essential to win the 2005 general election campaign partly for the sake of the Conservatives, so that they would be able to reshape themselves as a new party, free of the wretched legacy of the past. The Prime Minister was echoing Margaret Thatcher, who sometimes allowed her advisers to speculate that her greatest legacy of all was to make the Labour party electable.
An influential part of the Tory party readily accepts this analysis, and agrees that the Tories cannot return to power until they have confessed to ancient crimes and re-engaged with civilised political life on terms set for them by New Labour. There are all kinds of reason why this thesis — favoured above all by the modernising faction whose leader Michael Portillo leaves Parliament at this election — is wrong. It is important to get this fallacy absolutely straight this weekend, before the arguments following the election defeat of 2005 get fully under way.
There will be those who will want to put it about that it is somehow shameful to be a Tory. But that is to confuse success with virtue, and failure with dishonour. There comes a time in the life of all great ideas and movements when it is necessary to endure derision and scorn, and yet to fight on. This is one of those occasions. It is very splendid to be a Conservative this weekend, and it is utterly essential to explain why this is the case.
First it is necessary to puncture the insidious thesis, swallowed whole by the modernisers, that Tony Blair is the salvation of the Tories just as Margaret Thatcher was the salvation of the Labour party. This is just a clever piece of triangulation, the favoured Blairite rhetorical device. It assumes that the Tories find themselves in the same position in 2005, after three successive election defeats, as Labour did after losing by a landslide in 1987.
It was easy for Labour. It did indeed need to turn its back on a hopeless past. Labour had been on the wrong side of history on almost every great issue of the day: on the unions, on the Falklands war, on nationalisation, on nuclear weapons, on how to combat Soviet Russia, on Europe. It bequeathed an economic and social crisis to Margaret Thatcher’s incoming government in 1979, and then opposed every measure constructed to remedy the problem, from fiscal and monetary discipline to supply-side reform. That Thatcher/Major period was a great triumph which restored national pride, turned back the tide of history, and gave hope and prosperity to millions of ordinary people. The modern Conservative party should look back upon it with colossal pride.
In a sense it was too successful. In 1997 New Labour inherited a dazzling legacy from the Tories: the best-functioning economy since before the first world war. The strength of that economy swept Labour back to power with a second landslide in 2001 and has ensured another comfortable victory in 2005.
It will not do so in 2010, the likely date of the next election. There are unmistakable signs that eight years of Gordon Brown’s management is at last sucking the life out of the healthy economy he inherited. As Allister Heath’s Spectator cover story last week brilliantly explained, the Chancellor has systematically dismantled the reforms of the Thatcher period. He has re-regulated the economy, restored power to the unions and put lovingly back in place the supply-side restraints which held back economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Above all he is restoring the high-tax, high-spend economics which have condemned our main European competitors to feeble rates of growth in the last 20 years.
The full effects of these retrograde economic policies are already being felt. They may have played their part in the collapse of Rover, and helped account for BT’s cold-hearted decision last week to turn its back on the domestic British electronics industry. The disastrous consequences of Gordon Brown will be fully felt during the next five years as regulations tighten yet further and taxation reaches European levels.
The Liberal Democrats made a mistake of historical importance at this election. Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership they moved to the Left. The party of Brian Sedgemore can have nothing of interest to say about the economic problems that now confront Britain. The Tories now have the field to themselves. Over the next few years they will have plenty of time to build the case for the smaller state, for individual freedom and responsibility. They would be betraying their history, and making a disastrous mistake, if they gravitate to the centre. The sensible and logical move for the Conservative party now is to hold its nerve, and shift to the Right.
Michael Howard fought the 2005 election like a hero. But there were failures in his campaign. The Conservative case for lower taxation was never made. Perhaps it was impossible to make it. Howard had too little time, and the electorate may not have been ready to hear it. The party was guided by what it felt that middle-of-the-road voter wanted to hear. It lacked confidence to create a new climate of ideas, and fight and win the intellectual battles that must precede an election.
As I was writing this piece a member of Michael Howard’s campaign team, disturbed by what he saw as a lack of courage at the top and too much reliance on focus groups, drew my attention to a book by Lord Coleraine, son of the Conservative prime minister Bonar Law and a member of Winston Churchill’s wartime government. This book, entitled For Conservatives Only, and written in 1970, contains the following passage: ‘When all is said, the floating vote lives up to its name. It floats with the tide; and whoever would influence it must first influence the tide.’