The Tory leadership contest is proving as damaging as their crushing defeat in the general election.
If there had been any doubt about the demise of the Tory Party after the last general election, just look at their leadership contest.
As the (alleged) 300,000 Conservative Party members choose between Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke as their future leader, a Times leader on 22 August posed the party’s problems in stark terms: ‘The party must dramatically adapt or it will die.’
Everybody realises that the Tories are politically divided and isolated from mainstream society – throughout the leadership contest candidates have repeatedly called for ‘unity’ and for the need to ‘reconnect’ with voters. But everybody also underestimates the gravity of the problem – it is seen as a cosmetic issue of presentation, of not using the right language or not talking about the right issues.
From Michael Portillo’s attempt to come back from his 1997 defeat with a more ‘compassionate’ and ‘tolerant’ style (supplemented with confessions of a homosexual past), to Iain Duncan Smith’s self-conscious attempts to address multiculturalism (that’s modern, isn’t it?), to Ken Clarke’s insistence that Tories should be talking about public services (because that was what Labour talked about at the last election) – Conservatives are fooling themselves that all they need is a concerted PR drive.
Many argued that the lesson of the general election for the Tories was the need for a good leader. Yet the process of finding one seems to be proving as damaging as their crushing defeat on 7 June.
Witness these two potential leaders casting around, desperately looking for anything that could define them politically. Clarke has taken what the Guardian described as a ‘faltering approach’ (1). He offered an olive branch to Portillo, which was unceremoniously rejected; he tried to defuse the disagreement over Europe by saying he would abstain from the forthcoming parliamentary debate on the Nice treaty; and he put forward the policy proposal of setting up four ‘policy commissions’, each headed by a ‘top-level expert’ to help decide policy.
Duncan Smith, meanwhile, whose manifesto staked his commitment to restore the principles of the Conservative Party, stated on Channel 4 News: ‘What I want the party to do is to actually care mostly about the way people live their lives and let them take responsibility for the way they live their lives.’ He launched his manifesto in Bradford – the scene of recent riots – calling for the Tory party to reach out to ‘all those people who find themselves in the predicament of having no hope’ (presumably because only those with no hope would vote for such a bunch of no-hopers).
In the absence of anything else, both candidates instinctively come up with ideas barely distinguishable from those of New Labour. Duncan Smith proposed plans to increase the numbers of female and ethnic minority candidates, a long-running Labour policy proposal. Parts of Clarke’s manifesto are so Blairite he almost quotes the man himself. ‘There is such thing as society’, Clarke says, going on to say that with freedom comes responsibility to self, family and community (or, in snappier terms, No Rights Without Responsibilities).
The Tories are reduced to blaming each other for the current state of affairs. ‘How did we, the supreme party of Europe, get here?’, they seem to be asking themselves. It was your fault, says one – not me, it was yours, replies another. Clarke attacked Duncan Smith for his role as one of Maastricht rebels who brought down John Major – and Major, still bitter with the memory, duly threw his support behind Clarke. Lady Thatcher, meanwhile, pinned the blame on Clarke, highlighting his responsibility for the ‘mistakes which led the party to the greatest defeat in its history’ in 1997.
Lady Thatcher’s letter in the Daily Telegraph on 21 August was a voice from the past. ‘Iain Duncan Smith holds a principled position’, she said, ‘and he has fought for it with energy and honour’. Duncan Smith, she continued, will help Tories to find a way to the ‘shared values of the British people’. Claims to see these knightly virtues in Duncan Smith, made by a dinosaur like Thatcher, might play well with the bizarre electorate that makes up the Tory Party membership, but to anybody else they merely confirm the irrelevance of the organisation. Alongside those other public faces of the old Tory Party, Neil Hamilton and Jeffrey Archer, Thatcher today reeks of a disgraced regime, best consigned to the dustbin of history.
More than the pro-/anti-Europe split, the decision between Clarke and Duncan Smith seems to come down to personalities – and the candidates aren’t even up to much on this level. So the right-wing anti-Euro Daily Mail came out for pro-Europe Ken Clarke on the basis of his ‘maturity and blokeish take-me-as-you-find-me sincerity’, criticising Duncan Smith’s double-barrelled name and the ‘question marks over his charisma’ (2). The more moderate Times came out for Duncan Smith, on the grounds that better ‘the devil you do not know’ (3).
This whole, drawn-out leadership contest has been a repeat of the indignities of the general election, replayed over and over, day after day. As Labour MPs sun themselves on the beaches of Europe, it is evident that their presence is not required for the Tories to collapse – right now, they seem to be doing it fine on their own.
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