Tory Party fights for its survival

EXTOLLED FOR decades as the most successful capitalist party in Europe, caretaker leader Michael Howard this week presides over a squabbling bunch of would-be successors in the Tory party. They are more consumed with knifing each other than they are finding a coherent strategy that will at last enable them to challenge the man who stole their clothes.

Robin Clapp

Electorally the Tories have barely improved since Blair’s 1997 landslide. Hague, Duncan Smith and now Howard have gone down to heavy defeats, leaving them like the nursery rhyme Bo Peep, searching for their lost voters.

A recent Guardian/ICM poll showed that most people think the Tories are too right wing, with less than a quarter prepared to identify themselves as Tories.

Dissatisfaction and a sense of drift have spread deep into their musty ranks, with grandee Lord Heseltine lamenting that the best the Tories can hope for in 2009 is that New Labour might lose overall control.

Having decided to step down, the hapless Howard has lacked authority and credible policies in the last five months. In this vacuum it was never going to be possible to conduct a serious internal debate, because for the hopelessly divided Tories, the argument about who should lead is also an argument about policy and direction.

The big plan to change the leadership method, so that a successor would be chosen only by the 198 MPs, has, like everything else, now exploded in Howard’s face. The election will be conducted as before, with the 300,000 local party members choosing between the two candidates who receive the top votes from MPs.

Conference cat fight

SO TO Tory Party Conference where David Davis, Ken Clarke, David Cameron, Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind will line up to parade their credentials. Less a beauty contest than a catfight.

The air is already unpleasantly blue with recriminations. Alan Duncan has witheringly attacked the “Tory Taliban.” MPs, who treat “half our own countrymen as enemies.”

From the right, Edward Leigh condemns the liberalism that “has managed to infect the Conservative Party like a virus.” His recipe for success is faith, flag and family. He thinks it’s worked for Bush and wants to win the 72% who said they were Christians in the 2001 census. He’s not noticed that nearly 400,000 stated there that their religion was Jedi!

Cameron presents himself as a moderniser, while Liam Fox courts the right by calling for women to be banned from having abortions after as little as 12 weeks. But the real battle for the soiled crown of conservatism will probably be between Davis and Clarke. Each remains a sworn enemy of the working class.

Davis has the support of 66 MPs and is the main flagbearer of the right. He has unveiled a new Thatcherite vision based on cutting government spending and reducing marginal rates of tax, but at the same time has sought to woo One Nation conservatives with soothing speeches on social justice.

Clarke has been busy too, seeking to downplay his pro-European credentials. The stalling of the European constitution has made his makeover easier. He calculates that the Tory grassroots will be more concerned with victory in 2009 than with his past support for the single market, notwithstanding their Europhobia.

Among Tory voters he is more popular than Davis. Yet he is perceived in Westminster as being arrogant for declining to woo the new intake of MPs who form nearly 40% of the parliamentary party.

The next leader won’t be in place until at least the New Year, but Tory woes run much deeper. Whether it’s Iraq, anti-terror laws, ID cards or further privatisations and pension cuts, Blair’s already grabbed their policies.

They cannot refashion themselves as a centre party without splitting asunder. While every time they make rabid announcements designed to appeal to their shrinking core vote, they alienate broad layers of the electorate.

Nevertheless, although it might seem unlikely at the moment, it is not completely ruled out that the Tories could recover sufficiently to win the next election, particularly if New Labour are damaged by economic crisis.

But the faultline running through Tory ranks has still not fully exhausted itself. Defections and even splits may occur. Some, fearful of disappearing salaries, could without scruple, make the small journey to the welcome door of Blair and Brown. Others may embrace the Liberal Democrats.

The most reactionary wing, concluding that it’s all up with the Tories may move to create a new unashamedly right-wing populist party with a programme of opposition to EU and support wider anti-immigration and asylum policies.

This process is unfinished and the Tories’ travails are set to continue long after they’ve left the Blackpool conference.