Lost in transformation
Michael Howard’s prescription for the reinvention of the Tory Party may cause dizziness.
Tory leader Michael Howard’s exit from the Butler Inquiry on 1 March brought shouts of ‘opportunism’ from all sides. Many of those now crying foul saw his rise four months ago as promising a new, reinvigorated Tory Party. How did the Howard honeymoon end?
The charge of opportunism certainly sticks: Howard apparently joined the Butler Inquiry because he thought it would help his political standing, and left when it seemed to be damaging him. It is unlikely that the change of heart had much to do with his views on the inquiry itself.
Instead of springing from any ‘opportunistic’ personality, however, this behaviour has its roots in the crisis of the Tory Party. Howard is catching at every passing political wind only because the Tory Party lacks an anchor.
A scan through Howard’s recent political initiatives reveals a random, scattergun approach. Most seem designed to appeal to a particular constituency rather than having any underlying political agenda. On 25 February Howard claimed to be the ‘intelligent friend of the motorist’, and promised that a Conservative government would remove all money-raising speed cameras (1). Around the same time, he was inviting British gay organisations to an ‘anti-prejudice seminar’, supporting civil partnerships for gay couples and boasting the Tory Party’s first openly lesbian parliamentary candidate.
On 1 March, he launched a thinly veiled attack on US economic policy at his party’s Trade Justice Forum, in the company of figures such as aid campaigner Bob Geldof and Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation (2). On 3 March he was launching a ‘charm offensive’ to woo back the City, ordering his front benchers to build links with companies and trade unions (3).
Each initiative was launched with impeccable finesse, and the requisite amount of gravity/passion/jollity, but they appear utterly arbitrary. Howard can be friend of motorists then friend of the gay community; critic of the USA then friend of business. He flips from one issue to another without worrying about whether they contradict – the only aim is to attract voters, however that may be.
In the process, Howard has shown that he is prepared completely to tear up his past Thatcherite principles. He promised to match Labour’s spending on the NHS, and came out against the government’s plans for tuition fees (even though it was an open secret that the Tories actually agreed with the principle behind the bill).
Meanwhile he has piled in on Blair’s weaknesses, trying to exploit every crack for all that it is worth. After having supported the Iraq war, Howard now raises a relentless stream of pedantic criticisms, recently demanding that Blair resign over the fact that he failed to ask sufficient questions about the 45-minute claim in the government’s Iraq dossier. The Tory leader is perpetually poised to strike at Blair, wielding every passing news story for ammunition. Again, there seems to be little logic or principle to this process – the only aim is to land blows.
Every fashionable idea is similarly exploited – especially contemporary society’s obsession with exposing and countering racism (4). One desperate stunt took him to Burnley to face down the ‘extremists’ in the British National Party (BNP) (5). He also summarily sacked MP Ann Winterton after she made a joke at a private dinner party about the deaths of Chinese cockle pickers.
In short, Howard is having the same problems as did Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. While the traditional Tory Party has been discredited, there is little basis for building a new one – no new political interests, groups or ideologies that it can represent. The Conservative Party is caught between the ageing, blue-rinse constituency of its past, and attempting to reinvent itself for the future. The Tories resort to copying New Labour’s phrases and policies, which, given that these appear jaded on Blair, look ridiculous on imitators. Or they just grab whatever they can find, be it 45-minute claims, lesbians or car drivers. These attempts to appeal on the basis of single issues or particular identity groups is a far cry from the ‘One Nation Toryism’ of the past, which sought to unite the whole country beneath the Conservative banner.
Howard can’t rescue the Tory Party, any more than Duncan Smith was responsible for all its problems. The party’s difficulties lie in its politics rather than its personalities. Indeed, Howard’s keenness, energy and political skills could actually be making things worse. While Iain Duncan Smith blundered along not doing very much, Howard is getting out there and launching daily initiatives, yet all this activity merely means spinning around the country like a spinning top. Far from taking politics in a new direction, Howard is displaying his party’s disorientation.
In one sense, Tory troubles are of little concern for the rest of us. This former party of the British establishment has long been responsible for protecting the interests of the powerful, and deserves no tears or sympathy. However, behind Howard’s ‘opportunism’ lies the broader crisis of political life that has afflicted political parties and associations. All political organisations have lost their base and are searching for a sense of direction – after all, Blair is accused of opportunism just as much as is Howard.
And the dire state of the Tory Party leaves British politics without the semblance of an opposition, calling into question everything from elections to parliamentary debate (even the layout of the House of Commons assumes that there are two sides to every argument). A one-party democracy finds it difficult to justify itself, which is why commentators of all stripes were so keen to see Howard as bringing on a Tory revival.
Far from reviving anything, however, Howard’s casting around for the political initiative is likely to further degrade British political life. His pedantic attacks on Blair and random stream of initiatives will make politics seem more pointless than it already does at present.
Howard’s ends, by Josie Appleton
The strange death of Tory England, by Josie Appleton
(1) Howard to become ‘driver’s mate’, BBC News, 25 February 2004
(2) Michael Howard promotes free trade, 1 March 2004
(3) Tories turn on the charm in attempt to woo back City, 3 March 2004
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,482-1021135,00.html, by Mick Hume, in The Times, 1 March 2004
(5) Howard confronts BNP ‘extremists’, BBC News, 19 February 2004
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