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After you’ve gone

Members and supporters of the Conservative Party who have a delicate disposition might be best advised to look away now. Perhaps move on to the next article. Or the last article. Or spoil yourselves with our tempting and varied blog-roll to the left. But don’t read on because, for you, this is disturbing stuff:

Although the Government’s reputation is far from having sunk to the depths plumbed by John Major’s government in the mid 1990s, parallels between the two administrations begin to suggest themselves.

That said, it is striking that the Conservatives’ lead over Labour – a mere two percentage points – is so small and that, as the figures in the panel also show, Mr Blair is still preferred by a wide margin to Iain Duncan Smith as the person who “would make the best Prime Minister”.

The Tory Party’s efforts to present Mr Duncan Smith as a more relaxed and confident leader than in the past have so far had negligible public impact. His standing is virtually on a par with that of the Liberal Democrats’ Charles Kennedy.

The section of the chart headed “A Conservative Government?” tells a similar story. The proportion of people saying they would be “delighted” if the Conservatives came to power remains unchanged since the last general election and the proportion saying they would be “dismayed” has actually risen slightly.

Tony Blair and New Labour have now been in power for over six years; their policies are widely judged to have been a failure, Blair’s popularity has plummeted and the party over which he presides is riven with in-fighting. Despite all this, the Conservatives cannot even overtake them in the opinion polls and, anyway you care to stack it up, that is grim news for them.

To my reading, something has gone very badly wrong for the Tories that cuts deeper than a mere downturn in fortunes. By any reasonable reckoning the political pendulum should have swung towards them by now or, at least, it should be showing signs of doing so. The fact that it is still doggedly (though marginally) on the Labour side of the divining line suggests a systemic failure that no amount of analytical contortion can disguise.

Which raises the question of whether the Conservative Party is done for. Yes, finished. Washed-up. Dead men walking and all that. Certainly if Labour wins the next election by anything like a respectable margin (and they could well do so), then it is difficult to imagine the Tories surviving as an institution. Such a vista would have been unimaginable a decade ago. But times change as times are wont to do and the fact that the Conservatives ruled Britain for most of the Twentieth Century is of no help to them now. As they say in the investment world, past performance is no guarantee of future success.

Which raises another question of what (if anything) will replace them? I do believe that something will replace them as Labour would then be left as the establishment that is begging to be challenged. But by what and by whom? Perhaps a genuinely classical liberal party? Perhaps the BNP? The opening paragraph of the linked article hints at all manner of intriguing possibilities:

Signs are emerging that Dr David Kelly’s death and the revelations of the Hutton Inquiry are inflicting substantial damage not just on Tony Blair’s government but on Britain’s entire political class – journalists as well as politicians.

That sound to me like a vacuum. Eventually it will be filled. But by what?

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

20 comments to After you’ve gone

  • Guy Herbert

    I don’t know that you have to be a Conservative to be disturbed by that. It’s consistently distressing to anyone who doesn’t share its world-view to recognise how strongly the present (evil is not too strong an adjective) regime and the corporatist philosophy it epitomises are established.

    It is as disturbing to contemplate how many Conservatives share that approach.

  • Zathras

    I’d like to pose a historical question for the Britons on this board: how much of the Tories’ malaise has its roots in their decision some 13 years ago to force out Margaret Thatcher in favor of John Major?

    I pose this question without having a strong opinion as to the answer, though I always thought replacing Thatcher with Major was a great mistake. There is no question Thatcher was out of step with most Conservative MPs on many issues, was a magnet for controversy, and was by no means easy to deal with on a personal level. But Major was the embodiment of idealess mediocrity; if I’d been born in England I might have voted for him, but certainly could not have done so with any enthusiasm.

    Of course Thatcher would have had to leave eventually at some point regardless, and it isn’t clear she would have even tried to advance the careers of younger Conservatives who shared her way of thinking and might one day have succeeded her. So the Tories might have gone in the ditch in any event. Still, from this side of the Atlantic she seems to cast a long shadow, over politics as well as policy.

  • Zathras,

    The only realistic future leader likely to have been advanced by Mrs Thatcher was, judging from her comments in “The Downing Street Years” (pages 855/856), Michael Portillo. William Hague was not on the radar nor, of course, IDS.

    In her time, she had tried to help various characters up the ladder. John Major and John Moore are obvious examples. But none possessed the intellectual overview of Airey Neave, William Whitelaw and Keith Joseph who powered the ideological machine in its early stages. Perhaps that’s the heart of the problem. We live in a time that distrusts ideology, which is the fruit of all political vision. So Labour gives us presentational skills and the Tories, bereft even of that, a pallid, torpid and directionless three-act comedy. David Carr could well be right and the third act, starring Mr Duncan-Smith, will be the last.

    Guy,

    Entirely right, as you so often are. The Tories have had decades to realise that concomitant with the economic war, which Mrs T was so spectacularly the victor, was a social one. There is still no sign that they have fingered the culprit. But God knows they only have to read the Guardian Society pages. One despairs at their stupidity or timidity, whichever it is.

  • Posie

    There was a short thread a few days ago on how even the staunch Toryism of even The Telegraph seemed to be twisting in the wind. The last few days have validated that view. Their leaders have supported Blair – or at least bent over backwards to see the world from his bizarre point of view. It seems that the only people at the Telegraph now who continue to be fuelled by a hatred of Blair’s thought fascism and mendacity are Janet Daley and Tom Utley. And, although his pronouncements are more Delphic and shrouded in nuance, I think, Mark Steyn still has the stomach for a hate-Tony fest. Other than those three, The Telegraph seems to have lost its will to live.

  • Charles Copeland

    Yes, the Conservative Party is more or less done for. Like the nation as a whole, it is “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”.

    Remember who said that?

    Try:

    http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/powell_press.htm

  • Andy Duncan

    Mr Carr writes:

    But by what and by whom? Perhaps a genuinely classical liberal party? … That sound to me like a vacuum. Eventually it will be filled. But by what?

    How about a genuinely classical liberal party called ‘The Liberals’ (or ‘The Independents’, or even ‘Samizdata’).

    It could bypass ordinary untrusted politics and use the Internet as its primary medium, and when the Tory party collapses, soak up all of those classical-liberal minded folk within it, who are tired of its conservative patriarchy, gather in all those UKIP people who became tired of the single issue, and reach out to those millions of non-voting people in the land who feel entirely disenfranchised, isolated, and unrepresented.

    Is now the time to begin organising it, if such a thing were thought to be a worthwhile venture? Yes there are many dangers, from the violent murderers of the New Left, all the way through to the tax marauders of the Old Left, but as Pim Fortuyn showed before he was tragically assassinated by the New Left, who were terrified of him, you can go from nothing to becoming a government, in no time flat, if the vacuum is there, and you exploit it well enough.

    Though perhaps the first thing we should all buy is a truckload of flak jackets, if we should dare to raise our heads above the parapet. But should we let the violence of the New Left intimidate us into keeping our mouths shut? Tough one.

    But I feel waiting for the vacuum to occur, and then sitting back to watch what happens may be even more dangerous (ie. the BNP et al, who are getting organised.)

  • Other European nations have the advantage that their proportional electoral systems make it easier for new parties to break through. We’re stuck (mostly) with a system where the rumps of dead and dying parties can still obstruct the emergence of a viable successor, because enough of their old supporters continue to vote for them out of tribal loyalty.

    Our problem is that we’re going to be stuck with Blairism for another decade because of a split and divided opposition. The next election (and probably the one after than) will be a fight for second place between the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and any hypothetical new parties.

  • Charles Copeland

    Tim Hall writes:

    “Other European nations have the advantage that their proportional electoral systems make it easier for new parties to break through. We’re stuck (mostly) with a system where the rumps of dead and dying parties can still obstruct the emergence of a viable successor, because enough of their old supporters continue to vote for them out of tribal loyalty.”

    Andy, I’m no expert on British politics, but that sounds pretty spot on. Why not try old-style ‘entryism’ into the Conservative Party itself? Or is that a non-starter?

  • Non Quisling

    The chances of a new party having any impact are miniscule but to make a dramatic impact on the Tory Party would be simple as it is already an ideological vacuum waiting to be filled.
    Five or six articulate libertarians in each of a hundred parliamentary seats could have enough influence on parliamentary selection committees to ensure a fair sized contingent of libertarian-leaning Conservatives get selected. Five years on, many of these could be inside the Parliamentary party and helping to form the party platform.
    You don’t need a majority to run a revolution!
    Doing the same in the Labour party might be worth trying but is less likely to succeed because it is more centrally controlled. Although Labour has seen a huge fall off in membership so again it would not take many people.

    On the other hand you could just keep taking sideswipes at the Tories so that even the most committed libertarian Conservatives get demoralised and give up leaving the Tory Party entirely to the statists.

  • There are already efforts to change the Tory Party from within, alas a lot of classical liberals and libertarians do very little to help these brave souls in their task. It can be done.

    A new party would be tough to achieve and would take time. Time that the right does not really have to play with. Once you get sucked into that morass called Europe, with its Europe-wide parties, Anglo-Saxon type parties of the right will be non-entities.

  • Guy Herbert

    “It could bypass ordinary untrusted politics and use the Internet as its primary medium,[...]“

    You’ve been in this technology business a bit too long, Messer Duncan, sir. Most folk out there who are connected in some way don’t use the net to get information about politics.

    I’m a sad wonk. It takes me some effort to find political stuff that interests me. And I don’t trust websites much.

    It’s conceivable that people who are turned off politics can be turned on over the net, but it strikes me as unlikely to be cost-effective. Anbd very easy to get clangingly wrong, because of audience feedback problems. Remember this glory?

    Unfortunately–or perhaps fortunately–politics can’t be easily virtualised. It needs lots of money, lots of people, and some peculiar talents.

  • Zathras: I’d like to pose a historical question for the Britons on this board:

    Board? This is not a message board, nor an e-group nor a forum or a chat room or any of the things people mistake us for… this is a blog. The format and raison d’etre of a blog is quite different.

  • HTY

    Just some observations:

    1. I would think that the best way for the far left Labourites to remove Blair is for the Telegraph to sing his praises, further confirming their suspicions about him.

    2. Dare I borrow what Mark Twain said: Reports of the death of the Tories have been greatly exaggerated.

    It’s been only 6 years. Remember, the Thatcher-Major years lasted 18. There were many heralds proclaiming the death of Labour back then….

    Parties do go through drought periods every now and then. 12 years of Reagan-Bush was followed by 8 years of Clinton.

    I believe a similar pattern will occur for Britain as well. Labour rule will not have 18 years and the Tories aren’t going away.

  • Guy Herbert

    “It’s been only 6 years.”

    Haven’t you being paying attention to what Blair’s done in those 6 years? Silent revolution. Bonanza for bureaucrats. Attlee without all the fuss about politics.

    I’m not crazy about chunks of Thatcher (e.g. nationalizing education), or most of Major, either. But this is a different order of state expansion.

    It’s not the spin, it’s the wash you want to worry about.

  • andy janes

    How about a genuinely classical liberal party called ‘The Liberals’ (or ‘The Independents’, or even ‘Samizdata’).
    There is still a Liberal party distinct from the Lib Dems. Their website can be found here. However dispite their claims they have some very non-liberal policies, like banning tobacco (but are willing to legalise other drugs!), renationalising certain industries, and they were anti war as well. Still, reading their manifesto I found morein common with what I think than on any other parties website.

    Check out my blog at andyjanes.blogspot.com

  • HTY

    Guy Herbert,

    I have been paying attention, which is why I think Britain will survive Blair just as the US survived Clinton.

    The good thing about “Third Way” is that they’re not far Left. They’re also quite confused about what they’re about in the first place. Not to mention that they focus more on gestures than concrete measures. The result is that once they’re through, given the benefit of hindsight, you’d be astonished how little they have accomplished and how much of it you actually approve of.

    Banning fox hunting? Sure. But what about Thatcher’s labor market deregulation? From what I can tell, most of it is very securely in place.

    The former is consistent with Third Way in that it is nothing more than a gesture. They have absolutely no will to overturn conservative structural reforms. If they do, the voters will throw them out of office.

    Let’s face it, which party is the one that wants university top-up fees and which party is the one that wants that socialist system to remain in place? Which party will be inaugurating foundation hospitals? Not even Thatcher seriously reformed the NHS.

    The parallel with the US is quite stunning, really. It took the Democrat Bill Clinton to abolish a social welfare program (AFDC), eliminate more than 200 federal programs, push through NAFTA and PNTR, along with a myriad of other decidedly non-liberal achievements.

    I can understand right-leaning and libertarian Britons being frustrated by Blair. I should know. I lived under 8 years of Clinton. But like I said, once he’s gone, you’ll be amazed by how little he accomplished and how much of it you approve of.

  • Guy Herbert

    I agree fox-hunting is near-irrelevant, a bauble for the class-warriors. If that were all Blair had done, I wouldn’t be worried.

    Much of the dangerous stuff is obscure or indirect– undermining, rather than overthrowing, Thatcherite reforms. That it is not an openly ideological agenda makes it more dangerous. That it chimes with the Civil Service way of doing things has made implemementing it easier.

    (If you don’t belive they are directed by New Labour, you could equally interpret events by assuming that the present government has gone native in Whitehall faster than any previous one.)

    Leave aside for a moment the general trampling of privacy and civil liberties covered in White Rose and elsewhere…

    I’m thinking about things such as the removal of constitutional brakes by suppression (without headline abolition) of the House of Lords; the state control of politics through the Registration of Political Parties Act (et seq.) and the establishment of the Electoral Commission; febrile tweaking of the criminal law to create enormous numbers of new offenses and make convictions easier; the Human Rights Act, which paradoxically entrenches in UK law the conception that freedoms are a grant from the state; the creation of hundreds (literally) of new authorities and public bodies; a huge new raft of employment law, enforcing at an individual level things that trades unions only dreamed of before the Thatcher “labour market reforms”; denigration of private property through the “right to roam”; the vast unaccountable power of the Financial Services Authority over every penny that moves, and the new powers under the Enterprise Act to control all sorts of other industries in a detailed manner; renationalization by regulation (“ownership is not an issue”); and the endless indulgence of every official whim at the expense of the individual in unmeasureable regulations.

    Those are just the public general acts, as is were, it leaves out the cultural changes: the triumph of and the bloating of the state sector, the jobbery that’s creating a nomenklatura. Read a .gov.uk website and you hear the voice not of servants but of masters. How much did Clinton increase public spending in 8 years of boom? New Labour has managed more than a third (without counting off-balance-sheet funding) in 6.

  • Verity

    Guy Herbert speaks the truth. There is no comparison with Clinton because the American Constitution is ring-fenced. Blair came into power swinging an axe and has felled many British institutions and ancient liberties. Under the guise of being “open” and “accountable” they have unpicked much of the fabric of Britain. Clinton was self-indulgent. Blair and his courtiers are vicious. They are filled with a curious hatred of Britain.

  • Jonathan L

    Change from inside the Tory party is the only way.

    The Tories lost their nerve after two big defeats, and ceased to represent anything, giving the voters no reason to vote for them.

    The party needs more articulate communicators to combat the very effective Bliar machine, and needs some concrete ideas to talk about.

    The idea that they may be finished seems to me a little far fetched, especially bearing in mind the comments about PR and the rise of new parties in Europe. British parties have a lot of staying power.

    In the Tories favour are a number of factors.

    1) Mr Campbell is no longer at the side of the glorious leader, leaving Tony flapping in the wind. It only takes a few gaffs to change an image.

    2) The EU has chosen in its wisdom to try to force a new contitutional “treaty” on its members that is of such hair raisingly scary nature, that the public is unlikely to buy it. Tony has identified himself a little too much with the permanent revolution in Europe and stands to lose out.

    3) The left is getting restless. Years of overweaning central control is testing patience to the limit. How long before left wing candidates start to stand against Tony for the leadership? Don’t forget the divisive leadership contests that plagued the end of the Thatcher era.

    4) Until now, TB’s popularity has rested mainly on his good guy image. After Dr Kelly’s death, this looks under threat. Now the public will be much more willing to challenge the governments views.

    5) With David Beckham in Spain, perhaps the newspapers will have some space to feature politics? If so the public may become better informed.

    Whether the Conservatives have the ability to gain from these opportunities is of course another question

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Guy Herbert’s analysis hits the spot. The late Conservative MP, Nicholas Budgen, perceptively grasped that New Labour would exert just as strong an influence over our lives, not by nationalising things, but by nationalising people.

    Of course much of the Thatcherite achievements in rolling back the State have been exaggerated by the Right. Yes, much of the state business sector has been privatized and the trade unions lost nearly all of their privileges stemming from the 1906 Trades Disputes Act, but the Tories did not do nearly enough to roll back the state. And of course labour market regulation is getting steadily more onerous, as any employer would tell you.

    You can tell a lot about the state of a party by the speeches made by its leading members. With the partial exception of Oliver Letwin, who unlike many of his colleagues is a thoughtful man, most Tory MPs hardly make serious speeches any more. Where, for example, is Michael Howard on the vast increases in public spending under Brown, and how does he propose to rein this in and cut it? Where are the speeches pushing for more, not less, free trade? It is telling that the Guardian newspaper, of all places, recently took the admirable step of pressing for free trade and zero subsidies in agriculture. Yet the Tories should have done this.

    There’s a lack of fizz and esprit de corps in the modern Tory Party. I hold no brief for that party and dislike many of its leading members, but the quality of public life needs a revitalised and credible contender for public office. At present we are some way off from getting one.