Beached and powerless

Over the past four weeks, Tories have paraded slivers of hope like castaways clutching salvaged treasure amid a rising flood. Now the waters have closed on them. They face at least four years, perhaps more, excluded from power.
In the days ahead, it will be for analysts to assess whether the result gives them any possibility of achieving victory in 2009. There is no way that the outcome can be made to look like a success for the Tories.

Scorn has been heaped on the performance of Michael Howard. Yet what did anyone expect of him, or of any standard-bearer for a party in such a predicament? When the Tories were debating the dumping of Iain Duncan Smith, I suggested that the challenge was not to pick a successor who could win an election, but a man (for there are no Tory women) capable of losing with dignity, rather than ridicule.

It is a nice question, whether Howard has achieved this. His assaults on Tony Blair’s credibility have been derided as negative campaigning. Yet the prime minister’s falsehoods about Iraq created his chief vulnerability. By far the best argument Tories could offer for dispossessing Labour was that Blair could no longer be believed.

The Conservatives did not make extravagant promises, for a modern party knows that voters will not swallow them. In 1997, for all Tony Blair’s masterly rhetoric, essentially he offered the British people the maintenance of Tory economic prudence, with better public services and without the sleaze. In 2005, Michael Howard offered voters a change of prime minister, with policies not drastically different from those of Labour.

This was not nearly enough to swing a general election away from a ruling party that has delivered prosperity. Britain’s natural political condition is inertia. It takes a lot to rouse the electorate to risk exchanging one group of chronically suspect politicians for another. It is easy to perceive why voters acted to expel incumbent governments in 1945, 1951, 1979 and 1997, in all these cases reaching pretty just verdicts.

Roy Jenkins used to argue that the exceptions, the unfair modern British poll results, came about in 1970 and 1974, when the electorate might have been expected to stick with the parties of government and did not do so. The general principle obtains, however, that a government has got to make the British people very cross indeed before they throw it out.

In 2005, Iraq never looked an issue that could break the Blair administration. Much has been made of the antipathy between Blair and Gordon Brown, and the absurdity of their charade of unity. Yet during the campaign Labour’s frontbench produced an impressive display of purpose and coherence. They looked every inch men and women who enjoy the experience of power far too much to put it at risk.

Howard likewise imposed an iron discipline on his party, with not a candidate rocking the boat after the exemplary execution of Howard Flight. Yet the party suffers a desperate shortage of heavyweight performers, big beasts of the jungle. Who could have failed to notice the loneliness of the Tories’ most popular veteran, Ken Clarke?

There he was, once again stumping the streets of his Nottingham constituency, which was doing duty for St Helena as far as the Tory leadership was concerned. Howard and his strategists did not want Ken anywhere near the national stage. He, alone among the Tories, might have blown the gaff, exposing the reality that Howard’s Conservatives constitute a rightwing party, dry enough to grow cacti.

Though Europe has been pushed down the Tory agenda so far as to have become almost invisible, the ridiculous promise to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU lurks like a cache of internet pornography. In one critical respect, the party indeed resembles Michael Foot’s old Labour: it is dominated by people who still care more about being right in their own eyes than about gaining power.

This is a crippling handicap. True Believers in Tory constituency parties have overwhelmingly influenced the kind of parliamentary candidates they have chosen. The shadow of Margaret Thatcher still reaches out from the political grave to blight her posterity, even 15 years after her expulsion from office.

Howard was the only plausible runner for the leadership in 2003, because he was the only serious professional in a freak show for which no potential candidate save a rightwinger need have bothered to apply. In this election campaign, Howard could not escape being tarred with old Tory sins in office, in which he had shared, and of sounding the clever metropolitan lawyer, which he is. His very barrister’s quickness of phrase jars on an audience accustomed to the mannered thoughtfulness of Blair and Brown. How could he escape the charge of opportunism when his party committed itself to abolishing university top-up fees and stamp duty on middle-price housing?

In a sulphurous Channel 4 interview on Wednesday night, Howard responded to Jon Snow’s wife-beating question about whether the Tories had changed from being the “nasty party”: “Of course we’ve changed. We recognise that if we want to have the world-class health service we deserve, the world-class education system we deserve, we’ve got to spend money.”

Snow asked: “Does that mean you’ve become the party of big government?” Howard said lamely: “No, we’re committed to a smaller government.” He sounded like a prophet seeking to lead a jihad who then explains that no participant will need to march further than Bognor.

Tories were perfectly entitled to attack the government’s failure to control asylum seekers and immigration, if this had been a mere minor theme in a symphonic presentation of Britain’s future. As it was, however, the Conservative party spent its campaign making big promises on small things, while offering only a tweak of the controls on big ones.

In their desperation to make only pledges that might be fulfilled, the Tories were obliged tacitly to acknowledge that it was impossible to outflank a Labour government that is in so many respects a conservative one.

Labour in its third term will face plenty of troubles relating to the economy and public spending. Yet how could the electorate have been expected to heed siren warnings from the Tories about Britain’s future when the recent past has been so comfortable?

Most Conservative politicians, whether young or old, still appear beached in the 20th century by back ground, style and attitudes. Michael Howard is far less convincing in highlighting his credentials as a football fan than as an enemy of asylum seekers. He said: “I want this country to be a brighter, better place than it is today.” Yet he was much easier to believe when he said no about things than when he tried to explain what a Tory government would say yes to.

For all its weaknesses, Labour looks a political party of the 21st century. This is an era that, so far, many voters are enjoying. For all the pub grumbling about things that are going wrong in Britain today, there is no deep public anger, as there was in 1979 and 1997. The Tories went into this election campaign as underdogs. Whatever their tactical gains, this is what they remain. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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