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Michael Howard and the Conservative opportunity

Sean Gabb comments on the Conservative leadership switch in his latest issue of Free Life Commentary. So far, it’s just an email and that link doesn’t now work, but it will soon.

He starts by saying nice things about Michael Howard, and notes that he said much nastier things in the past. But since Sean now really hates the government, whatever has to be, in the matter of who has to be the Leader of the Opposition, has to be. At least he’s better than Iain Duncan Smith.

But how come, he asks, the Conservatives have suddenly had this collective fit of effectiveness?

But the question remains how did they do it? For the past six years, I have watched from an advantaged view as the Parliamentary Conservative Party ran about like terrified sheep in the dark. How have they managed this coup so quickly and so well? The simplest explanation is to say that enough of them saw the possibility of losing their seats at the next election and that desperation supplied the lack of courage and imagination. I like to believe, however, in a more complex explanation. Mine is not a standard conspiracy theory, as I claim little prior evidence in it support. Instead, I reason back from perceived effects to possible causes. It may be entirely false, but it pleases me to entertain it. Here it goes.

As said, this is not an ordinary Labour Government, but something of wonderful malevolence. It does not so much want to change the running of the country as to destroy it. There is the continued sapping of the Monarchy – the threatened removal of royal powers, and the degradation of Her Majesty from our Head of State to citizen of a United States of Europe. There is the determination to outlaw hunting and to destroy farming and to remove all the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. There is the progressive hobbling of the City financial institutions with European levels of tax and regulation. There is the use of the armed forces as American mercenaries – and without any advantage gained in return. There is the possible murder and undoubtedly the forced suicide of someone senior in the foreign policy and intelligence establishment. The remnants of the Old Order may finally have realised that there is no compromise on offer from this Government, and now may be doing something about it. The Monarchy, the landed and mercantile interests, and the security services – these are even now a formidable combination. Perhaps 1688 is finally come again. Then, an alarmed old order realised the nature of its enemy and took up the cause of an aroused but leaderless nation. Perhaps Mr Blair is to play the role of James II, and Mr Howard of Prince William.

Is there any truth in this? Or am I just an old romantic? We shall see.

Some but not much. Yes you are. And I believe we can already see. I don’t believe that the Conservatives are that much more bothered about the country than they were, say, five years ago. Sean is letting his own forebodings quite run away with him here. What infuriated the Conservatives about Iain Duncan Smith was not that he was failing to defend the country effectively, but that, now that circumstances have at last made it possible, he was failing to attack the government effectively. The Conservatives don’t suddenly see national ruin. They suddenly see political advantage. IDS was going to bungle this huge opportunity, ergo he had to go.

Let me itemise the elements of this opportunity, yet again. I have said what now follows at least twice before here, but since these are now the central facts about British party politics, I will just keep on saying them until Instapundit links to it and everyone within our range gets it. So, in no particular order:

First: Sean is right about the economic situation. The government is making that worse. But the importance of that is not so much that the country is suffering , as that this suffering is creating a political opportunity. I remember scorning the claims made by the likes of Paul Marks when Labour first got elected that we were ruled by tax-and-spenders. But Paul is right at least that this now has happened. The Labour failure to improve “Public Services” by any method other than throwing money at them having failed, they are throwing money at them like there’s no tomorrow, which means that for them, maybe there won’t be. The irony is that the government has ditched the pretence of Conservative fiscal policies because it believed for a fleeting moment a few months ago that the Conservatives were dead in the water. But the Conservatives would only stay dead if the Government realised that assuming them to be dead and acting on that assumption would revive them. Now that assumption, the error of which the government must now realise, but too late, is duly reviving the Conservatives. A self-unfulfilling prophecy, you might say. Until a few months ago, Labour was united in not reducing taxes, and the Conservatives were divided about reducing taxes. Now Labour is divided about increasing taxes, and the Conservatives united against increasing taxes.

Second: the Iraq War. Blair must have been hoping for a Falklands effect with his war, and he got it with a vengeance, but not as he had hoped. This war, just like the Falklands war, has divided Labour and united the Conservatives. Maybe Posterity will one day agree with Sean that Blair’s decision to send what remains of the British Army to Iraq was a mistake, but very few Conservatives have any problem with this policy now. So he is entirely wrong about that. A slightly bigger annual grant to the armed forces and all Conservative worries on that score will end. The important thing about the Iraq thing – indeed the War on Terror thing – is that it is an ongoing process which is not going to go away. It is not one nasty little episode which can be forgotten by the Labour Party (it’s over – “move on” – etc.). It is going to be a running sore, like Europe was been for the Conservatives ever since the mid-eighties. Are you for what the Americans are doing or against it? The Conservatives are very content with backing the Americans. Labour is … not. This is the huge World Issue now, and Labour is crucified by it, and the Conservatives are … not.

Third: Europe is no longer the basket of grief for the Conservatives that it was but a few short months ago. That too is turning in their favour and against Labour. Now that the EU is at last expanding, Britain at last has a deregulation, pro-free-trade, pro-free-market gallery to play to within the EU. All Tony Blair’s waffle about how if we stay in we can influence things is at last, as was always the Foreign Office plan, coming to pass. Personally I think we should never have joined, should have left long ago, should leave now, leave soon, leave whenever, blah blah blah, as does Sean Gabb, and as do my fellow Samizdatistas, but that doesn’t alter the fact that Britain is certainly going to stay in the EU for the next few years, but that Britain will be putting forward arguments within the EU that will fit more happily with Conservative notions than Labour ones. At present, the most eloquent exponent of these deregulatory, pro-freedom ideas on the Euro-front is – would you believe? – Gordon Brown. The louder he shouts on these matters, the more angry his back benchers will get.

By the way, Samizdata will also be split by the EU issue, in the sense that some of us may come to see the sense of us staying in. I may even do a switch myself. (I can’t wait for the I-told-you-so postings – or even the I’ve-changed-my-mind-but-I-told-you-so postings.) But my serious point here is that, setting aside any little disagreements we might have here, this all adds up to a whole lot of Conservative unity, and a whole lot of Labour disunity. Voters really like their governing parties to be united. What they are united about doesn’t seem to bother them. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it is. (They probably don’t care about group blogs, and disunity in them may even be a competitive advantage because it’s more interesting.)

But – and to resume the serious point uninterruptedly – it is one thing for the Conservatives to have a great warehouse full of devastating arguments. It is quite another for them to be lead by somebody capable of making effective use of such arguments. IDS either couldn’t see all these sitting duck targets, or else he lacked the skill and/or the nastiness to shoot at them, whichever. This particular ex-army-officer is essentially a man of peace, except in his office affairs.

But now, in Michael Howard, the Conservatives have a leader nasty enough, dark enough, serious enough, eloquent enough, seriously to set about this government that we here all disapprove of so strongly, and which the country is now, at last, starting to despise. The country has never liked Howard, and does not like him now. But his arguments – that is to say the arguments that Howard now has in his hands – will wound the present government mortally. He needs only to state them, by repeatedly asking the Labour Party as whole how it feels about things and reading out all the juicey quotes, while simultaneously and with the full backing of a united Conservative Party, supporting the Americans and pushing for less in the way of taxes, regulations and trade barriers, domestically and within the EU as a whole. This Labour government may limp back into office after the next election, but I believe that its days are now numbered.

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10 comments to Michael Howard and the Conservative opportunity

  • Jim Bennett

    What the arrival of the Eastern Europeans does is permit the British Euroskeptics to put forward an alternative vision of a cooperating Europe not walled off from the rest of the world. Instead of “ever closer union” you can substitute “ever freer trade.” If (on the off chance) this vision wins, then great. If it loses, then it’s easier to make the argument for other options.

    But in order to play this game, the EU Constitution must be defeated. Until that issue os disposed of there are no other European questions.

  • I have been posting reasons why, IMHO, Howard will lose the next election for the Tories ever since I first heard of the ploy to insert him into the leadership position without either competition or debate.

    Visit ‘Ironies’ for links to the Paxman interview, Private Eye, etc.etc

  • “This Labour government may limp back into office after the next election, but I believe that its days are now numbered.”

    That may be true in the political sense, Brian, but I think the other damage inflicted by Labour — on the social, rather than the political landscape — are more serious:

    — the denigration of the police’s ability to do their job
    — the embedding of political correctness into the education establishment, and therefore into the next generation
    — the immigration / refugee myopia

    and so on.

    Stopping them will be one thing. Undoing all the harm they’ve done, another thing altogether.

  • gasky

    A P J O’Rourke quote springs to mind, “It’s one thing to knock down the shithouse, but quite another to put in the plumbing”.

  • Whether Howard manages to be an effective leader and to wound the govt time will tell. However do not forget that he engaged in various attacks and attempted attacks on civil liberties in a manner that both Straw and Blunkett have pursued ever since. He gave us the Police Act 1997, which allowed police to break into buildings to place bugs on their own authority without a warrant. He tried to introduce ID cards. He tried to restrict jury trials. He gave us the CJA 1994, with attacks on freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to silence. As Home Secretary he was an emotive authoritarian populist, just like Blair, Blunkett and Straw. I do not trust him. I think the Tories made a mistake in ditching IDS just when things were looking as if they were picking up…

  • fyi, The Economist has a column about IDS and the Tory ‘putsch’ here : http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=2173557.

    (I wish I could quote it, but I don’t take risks with copyrights on someone else’s blog…)

  • Julian Morrison

    How did they do it? Looks to me like skilled long term politics. In ’97 the Tories stood convicted of arrogance, specifically of thinking and behaving like a corrupt one-party-state, and the punishment was quite deliberate tactical humiliation. To “not get the hint” by standing straight back up would have resulted in another slap-down. All the big hitters were still tainted, and would have battered in vain against New Labour and its honeymoon. Worse: once deposed, no comebacks. You can’t recycle used party leaders, because everyone’s seen them being weak. Monkey tribe politics 101.

    So: two sacrificial placeholders whose main virtue was being dull, and easy to mock. Then when those who determine such things decide the wind has finally changed, away with the placeholder and roll out the big guns.

    Or so it seems to me.

  • Julian Morrison

    Oh and btw: “the country doesn’t like Howard” – If I were Michael H., I’d take those stats with a very large grain of salt. Or even as encouragement: “IDS peaked at whatever percent – but even before I open my mouth and say anything I’m already polling nearly as much.”

  • ernest young

    A liitle bit of savvy, and the right presentation, and we could be seeing the next PM…..now there’s a thought to make your knees shake..

    The above is the end of a comment I made on another site. The amount of quite insulting response was really surprising, as I did not think the comment was in anyway controversial.

    Obviously MH has got them – shall I say – ‘concerned’?. Could be……

    Apart from rattling the cages of the usual lefty freak show (P. Toynbee) et al, I read that he is also disliked by Al Fayed of Harrods fame. The fella shows more promise each day…!

  • Peter Hitchens disagrees:A squalid putsch and a series of dirty deals will not save the Tory Party. Nothing will save the Tory Party.

    I do believe that he is wrong. There is one good thing to come out of this Labour government and that is a whole new generation of voters will have witnessed the failure of tax and spend policies. It’s memories like that, like the old three day week, union power etc, that make life long tory voters.