From doldrums to downing street?

Author:Bale, Tim

The inability of the Tories to come up with a consistent strategy to take on Tony Blair after he became Labour leader in 1994 was testimony not just to the latter's skill, but to his opponents having forgotten what it was like to fight a credible, mainstream contender.

Not surprisingly, then, the complacency and self-obsession that characterised the Conservatives before the 1997 election carried on after it. Strapped for cash, straight into a leadership contest, and convinced that voters would soon wise up to a Labour government which had supposedly lost the ideological argument and would soon implode, the Tories failed to realise how much they would have to shift back to the centre ground.

Contrary to common wisdom, William Hague made little or no attempt, beyond a few disastrous photo-ops and a speech or two, to make a serious move back into the mainstream or to reach out to a new electoral constituency. Inasmuch as he had a strategy, it was to renew the Party institutionally so it would be ready in government to take to the next level the Thatcherism of which he and most of his colleagues remained unquestioning devotees.

Anyone who suggested some sort of move to the centre was torn apart not just by their parliamentary colleagues but by what we need to think of as 'the party in the media'--the Conservative columnists, op-ed and leader-writers who often exercise just as much influence as what political scientists like to label the party in public office (backbenchers and the Shadow Cabinet), the party in central office (staffers and advisers), and the party on the ground (the grassroots).

Huge opinion poll deficits combined with Hague's poor PR and judgement--and with Michael Portillo's re-entry into parliamentary politics--to call his leadership into question. But the Party's response was to refashion the Tory leader as a populist, commonsense defender of Middle England against asylum-seekers, criminals, political correctness, and, of course, Brussels. The urging of the party in the media, plus the seeming success of the highly sceptical Euro-election campaign in 1999, cemented in the increasingly hard-line approach and froze out advisers who had more faith in opinion research than in gut instincts and media 'hits'.

Apparently, the Party was best off avoiding the bread-and-butter issues, like health, education, and the economy, which conventionally decide elections. Instead, it would attempt to appeal to voters (and mobilise activists) on issues on which the Tories were stronger and stood some chance of breaking up New Labour's electoral coalition, namely crime, immigration, Europe, and (to a lesser extent) tax. This pitch would have the added advantage of authenticity since it accorded with Hague's instincts. But with voters mainly happy to give Labour another chance, it flopped--just as, in fact, the Tories' own opinion pollster had predicted it would. After four wasted years, they were back at square one.

Anyone thinking that things could only get better, however, was in for a disappointment. Hague's successor, Iain Duncan Smith, was no more capable than his predecessor of capturing the affection or the imagination of the public and the media. Even worse, he was quickly written off as an embarrassing liability by the bulk of his own MPs. IDS spent so much time worrying about his own position, and was so prone to venting his populist pet peeves in the media, that he gained little credit for his halting efforts to reposition the Party as one that genuinely cared about social justice. In any case, there was little point in talking about 'helping the vulnerable' and public services if the proposed solutions were still so patently Thatcherite, involving shrinking the state to free up room for tax cuts and subsidising the tiny minority who had the wherewithal to opt out of state healthcare or education.

Those advisers who tried to keep IDS on a more moderate, modernising message were soon cast aside in favour of people who were more in tune with the leader's traditionalist instincts and whose answer to terrible opinion polls was to go out and buy some better ones. Yet Duncan Smith, whose neo-conservative support for the US ruled out any possibility of the Party capitalising on public disquiet over the Iraq war, hung on--mainly because Tories at Westminster still feared the consequences of another divisive leadership election decided by the grassroots. By the end of 2003, however, concerns that the Party would become a laughing stock overtaken by the Lib Dems, along with threats by high-profile donors to withdraw their funding, and the probability that MPs would be able to avoid a contest by selecting a replacement unopposed, saw IDS ousted (with the help of his own Whips' Office) in favour of Michael Howard.

If, like Labour's Michael Foot, IDS did his party some good by being so bad, he also resembled him in handing over a policy legacy that any successor wanting to change things would...

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