The holiday season has come and gone and we approach the Party Conference season with a possible General Election less than a year away. How stands our party after three and a half years in opposition? We certainly made the headlines in August for all the wrong reasons.
We now know that in his youth William Hague consumed 14 pints of beer a day when working for his father’s company. What was the point in revealing this fact? Of course it showed that he was one of the lads and enjoyed the ordinary things in life. But it also raised the question of whether he could ever have drunk so much without becoming ill and gave the impression that he lacked ‘gravitas’ and displayed immaturity.
It is good to know that some comedians such as Jim Davidson back the Conservatives. He does have the common touch but whether his wooing of the blue rinsed ladies in the shires with his brand of humour and innuendo will bring rewards is open to question.
And what of Dr. Liam Fox with his suggestion of literacy tests for overseas doctors? Why confine it to them? The writing of our own British doctors leaves much to be desired if you look at the handwriting on many of the prescriptions issued. And on that criteria you wonder how many of them managed to pass their exams – did the examiner think to himself "Well I can’t really read this but I hope he (or she) is right?’
And finally the loss of Ivan Massow. I’m sorry he finds our party so intolerant (‘plain nasty’ was what, I think he said) but he has joined one which he finds will be at least as bad and probably much worse. Ivan’s passions are making money (which made him a millionaire) and fox hunting – both of which are disliked and, in some cases positively reviled, by certain sections of the Labour Party. As for his sexuality – this may be acceptable at the Islington dinner tables for the champagne socialists but in the South Wales Valleys, which I know well, he would be regarded by many (including Neil Kinnock in his younger days) as a raging poofter. How ironic it was for him to be feted by Mo Mowlam when he left us – she herself is leaving active politics because of malicious rumours and back biting from the top Labour hierarchy.
I’ve received my copy of the ‘Believing in Britain’ document on which the manifesto will be based and also the party’s magazine ‘Conservative Heartland’. I am continually asking myself why are we still 16% behind Labour in the opinion polls and I think I have part of the answer form an article in it by Ann Widdecombe. I always think it is fatal for a politician to reconcile his or her views by a reference to Christianity or religion. Ann has, I’m afraid, fallen into that trap. She says and I quote: "The point about the Good Samaritan was that he head wealth." I don’t think that is true and I would challenge the assumption. The point surely is that here was a man (the Samaritan) who had compassion for another fellow human being who had been stripped and robbed of his possessions and left for dead. Nowhere in the parable does Jesus says that the Samaritan found favour with God because he was able to give two silver coins to the inn-keeper for looking after the sick man. It must also be remembered that in those days, Samaritans had no dealings with Jews – the two races hated each other. I always remember an "Any Questions?" programme on the radio which featured the late Malcolm Muggeridge and the late Eric Heffer MP. Heffer, although on the far left of his party, was brought up as an Anglican. A religious question was asked and an argument ensued during the course of which Muggeridge said to Heffer: "I do wish you would stop treating Jesus as the Hon. Member for Galilee South".
Ann Widdecombe gave the impression that all we were concerned about, as Conservatives, was making money and gaining as many material possessions as possible. There are, of course, other reasons for our failure to make a greater impact. I suggest as follows:
When we left the ERM in September 1992 it was a traumatic experience for John Major and the Cabinet. We had a period of painful readjustment with higher taxes but at the end Kenneth Clarke, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, got it about right and passed on a good legacy to Gordon Brown who immediately handed over control of interest rates to the Bank of England. There has been no serious economic crises which plagued previous Labour governments. There is a period of contentment.
The mixed (and mainly capitalist) economy and the free enterprise system has won the battle and provides a better opportunity for giving us all the material benefits we would like, i.e. Conservatives have won the argument.
The complete emasculation of the Trade Unions thanks to the Trade Union reforms of the 1980’s. Trade Unions are now, quite rightly, engaged in trying to get better conditions and higher living standards for their members. They are not, thank goodness, engaged in trying to govern the country as part of some sort of ‘triumvirate’. Twenty five or thirty years ago, nothing could be done without the blessing or Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon.
Writing during the week of the Trade Union Congress conference, one would be hard pressed to name more than three Union leaders.
(4) Conservative policies are not distinctive enough (and that does not mean being more right wing). If, for example, we are going to spend as much on the National Health service as the Labour Party, why bother to change your vote? People, generally, are not interested in the economic arguments. It would be far better if we did not enter into an auction with the Labour Party who are about to embark on an irresponsible spending spree ratcheting up public expenditure to what might be an unsustainable level.
We have, sadly, a presidential system in which the party leaders are subject to special scrutiny. Blair already has ‘charisma’ (a quality which William Hague seemingly lacks) and is Prime Minister – Blair with his publicity conscious wife and four lovely children, including baby Leo, will be portrayed as a man with family values at heart, and pro marriage. And here is the paradox – he is head of a Cabinet whose membership includes many who are either themselves on their second marriage or their spouse is, many who are not married or are simply ‘gay’. Was it not the late Jimmy Thomas who once memorably said: "If you can’t ride two horses at once, you don’t deserve to be in the bloody circus"?
The next General election is going to be very difficult for the party. Our local government successes in early may concealed the disastrous loss of Romsey on the same day, a fact glossed over by Central Office. We were caught in a classic ‘pincer’ movement where the anti Conservative vote was transferred to one of the other candidates in this case the Liberal Democrats. The Labour vote in Romsey just collapsed and went to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative vote fell by 3% because we completely failed to get our maximum vote out.
Last Wednesday’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ with its list of marginal seats illustrated the problem. On a uniform 4% swing (that achieved by Michael Portillo in Kensington & Chelsea last year but nowhere near matched in the other by-elections of this Parliament) we would gain about 70 seats taking us from 165 to 235 seats.
Labour’s overall majority would be cut but Tony Blair would still won comfortably and have a working majority adequate for the full term of another Parliament.
Let us take a constituency example. Torbay in South Devon. Safely Conservative for 60 years, it fell to the Liberal Democrats in 1997 by a margin of 12 votes – Liberals 21,000, Conservatives 21,000, Labour 9,500. Between 1983 and 1997 the Conservatives polled between 26,000 and 28,000 votes winning each time by between 6,000 and 9,000 votes over the Liberal Democrats. Because of the ‘pincer’ movement described above Labour could lose 6,000 (all going to the Liberal Democrats) and the situation would then be: Liberal Democrats 27,000, Conservatives 21,000 (static) and Labour 3,500. So the party has to increase its vote by at least 6,000 to have any chance of regaining the seat. Of course, last time some Conservatives may have voted Liberal Democrat and others may have just stayed at home. But the Liberal Democrats do have a staying power and once in are very difficult to dislodge. Our party ignores them at its peril. The Liberal Democrats will always prefer Labour (they are both parties of the left) and in Charles Kennedy have a leader who was once in the Labour Party.
The ‘Daily Telegraph’ article also told us what swing and how many seats would be needed if William Hague were to survive as leader after a defeat. But the article was selective and did not compare like with like. Much will, of course, depend on how William Hague conducts the election campaign but far too many are too eager to blame the leader if things go wrong. Any idea that Michael Portillo would be able to take up the mantle and suddenly gain all those extra seats is in my view sheer moonshine. Michael has many excellent qualities but he would repel as many voters as he would gain. We would be unable to broaden the church, were that required. Arthur Balfour continued to lead the Conservatives for nearly six years after the heavy defeat of 1905. So is it not about time that our leaders looked to the long term? We have only to look at what Ken Follett, Tony Wright and Derek ‘Dolly’ Draper say about New Labour to know that it stands for nothing in particular and that the wheels of that particular chariot will eventually come off.
Writing before the Party Conference I hope it will not, as last year, be a looking back to the 1980’s and the premiership of Lady Thatcher. That would simply be an exercise in ‘sycophantic mush’ and would not concentrate on the real problem which is how to reduce considerably, if not completely eliminate, the majority of arrogant, bossy, overbearing government whose sole purpose is to win a second term in office. It has destroyed the Constitution, emasculated the House of Lords, released convicted terrorists who have maimed and murdered innocent people in Northern Ireland in a so-called peace agreement. It tacks on to other bills, other important pieces of legislation and blames a now non-existent Conservative majority in the House of Lords for its failure to get its business through. On a bill to outlaw fox hunting the Prime Minister states publicly on television that it is because of the Conservative majority in the House of Lords that the Bill has not been passed when it fact it was ‘talked out’ in the House of Commons. It has raised taxes by stealth and no one seems to notice. It has penalised thrift and savings are at an all time low. It wants and will eventually take us into a single currency in Europe and allow this once great country to become a mere province in a Greater Europe. The great constitutional issues leading to this super state will be suppressed and the country will have finally given up what remaining independence it has. Those of us who point this out are regarded as Little Englanders, clinging on to an age long gone by, and not part of the Cool Britannia so beloved of our present leaders.
The tragedy, as I have pointed out before, is that the Conservative Party is in no fit state to challenge our new elite.
But the writer will, at least, be able to say:
"Don’t blame me: in 1997 I voted Conservative".