The Conservatives’ life support system

How the dying Conservative Party is being kept alive by the UK media.

Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics

The Conservative Party, once the cornerstone of the British political elite, suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2001 election. The fact that its net gain between 1997 and 2001 amounted to just one seat in parliament confirms the party’s irrelevance to British society in the twenty-first century.

So is this the end of the story for the Tories? Not likely. Despite its irreconcilable internal tensions and dwindling support (1), the party has been spared the death sentence – and its corpse is being kept alive by the life support system of the UK media.

This life support is not just coming from the traditional right-wing press. One of the more interesting things about the media coverage of the election was the subdued nature of the support that traditional Tory papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph gave to the party – often seeming torn between their traditional loyalties and the unelectable status of the Tories (2).

But the UK media more broadly is finding it hard to catch up with the diminution of the Conservative Party’s importance. Given the Tories’ 1980s heyday as masters of the British state (a bygone period evoked by the appearance of Thatcher during their 2001 election campaign), this time-lag is understandable. The idea of the Tories as genuine contenders at one end of a compass of left and right is a difficult one to shake off.

Post-election, the Tory leadership tussle between Michael Portillo, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Ancram has a competitive character and an undecided outcome. Contrast this with the general election’s foregone conclusion – and the half-hearted way in which both Labour and the Conservatives went through the motions of campaigning – and you can see why the Tory leadership contest is more newsworthy. And the leadership contest has the added excitement of being a full-on personality clash.

Granted, the Labour government has its own share of internal personality politics – who could forget Peter Mandelson’s swipes at the Labour cabinet in his election-night speech, or the recent claims by Robin Cook’s ex-aide that Cook’s views on the Euro were gagged by his colleagues? These clashes have also attracted the attention of the media – but unlike the Tory infighting, Blair’s recent cabinet reshuffle consists of more than just petty squabbles.

Take new home secretary David Blunkett, who has proposed going even further than his illiberal predecessor Jack Straw by publicising access to information about registered sex offenders (3). The rivalry between Labour ministers may be petty, but the impact on everyday life of the policies they propose is all too real.

The more profound implications of Labour policy do not make for easy copy. The government’s plans to extend legislation preventing suspected football hooligans without criminal convictions from travelling abroad, or its wavering over whether or not to ban hunting with dogs, are hard topics to digest into an engaging news item (4). Indeed, the presentation of these issues in the post-election Queen’s Speech was deliberately dull and managerial.

But unlike the pantomime of the Tory leadership, the outcome of Labour policy has consequences for liberties in the UK. So surely Labour policy is more deserving of public discussion than Portillo’s chances of winning the Tory leadership.

While the Labour government attempts to use its second term to consolidate its authority, media discussion of Labour policy continues to be overshadowed by the Tories. Like when Tony Blair announced plans to ban violent patients from NHS hospitals – a news item relegated to page nine in the Guardian, while Ann Widdecombe’s hilarious retreat to the backbenches made the front page.

Widdecombe is well aware of her appeal to the media – and even her retirement from the leadership contest was big news. According to Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart, ‘Lesser politicians have campaign launches. Only Ann Widdecombe would have a campaign sinking’ (5).

The Conservative Party’s credibility may have collapsed – but given the tedium of the present political climate, the party continues to enjoy widespread media attention. So the party’s ability to imagine that it is a relevant political force is prolonged.

But while it might be amusing to watch the daily sparring of cartoon characters vying for positions in the shadow cabinet, it is also an unhelpful distraction from the machinations of the party in government. Labour can afford to live with an artificial boost to the Tories’ prominence. It probably irks Blair to see his thunder stolen by the Opposition, but it suits him perfectly well when it helps to avoid public debate about his government’s policies.

Stung by the reaction against party ‘spin’, Labour in its second term is likely to subdue the profile of its policies that have the most insidious impact upon society. Those of us in the media must resist this tactic and keep our wits about us, Tory antics notwithstanding.

(1) See Torn Tories, by Sandy Starr

(2) See What the papers say before polling day by Brendan O’Neill

(3) See Blunkett reviews paedophile lists, BBC News Online, 10 June 2001

(4) See the Full text of the Queen’s Speech, BBC News Online, 20 June 2001

(5) Simon Hoggart, And slowly, magnificently, a once great ship of state sinks beneath the waves, Guardian, 19 June 2001

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Topics Politics

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