Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Quick March Right: There Is Only One Way to Rebuild the Conservative Party: From the Ground Up, on Radical Right Ideas

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Quick March Right: There Is Only One Way to Rebuild the Conservative Party: From the Ground Up, on Radical Right Ideas

Article excerpt

Since Tony Blair's landslide the Tories have reminded me of the rocket scientist, walking away from a steaming hole in the ground where one of his inventions has just spectacularly crashed with great loss of life, clapping his hands purposefully and proclaiming: "Oh well! Back to the old drawing board!" There is no point the Conservatives crying over the corpses on the battlefield. They have got to get on with rebuilding and they have to do so with their traditional ruthlessness.

They do so with one great comfort. Turnout was 4.5 per cent, or about 2 million, lower than in 1992. It is a fair bet that most of those abstaining were Tories. Add on the million or so who voted for the UK Independence Party or Sir James Goldsmith, and you have enough potential Tory voters to cut the landslide down to a mere crack in the retaining wall next time. Should Blair make mistakes, some of his first-time voters might be tempted back home. It is also hard to imagine the Conservatives exciting the hatred at the next election that prompted the first mass experiment in tactical voting, and which allowed 46 Lib Dems into the Commons.

But there is a swamp and a half to wade through before then. The party needs a new leader. Perhaps more important even than that, it needs a superb party chairman and a team of serious fundraisers, as the party is all but dead at the grass roots. It has to look closely at its devastated organisation and work out how it is to attract back young, energetic people of the sort overflowing from the Labour Party. Conservative activism can no longer be a recreation engaged in only during the extra years medical science has granted between retirement and the arrival of the undertaker. Then there are the special problems of Wales and Scotland, where the Conservatives have been told to get lost. That all looks like a task for two terms in opposition, though one rare thing on which the Tories are united is that they would like to complete it in one.

The Conservative left has made unconvincing noises that the election result was a repudiation of Euroscepticism: they argue that the increasingly Eurosceptic arguments advanced by the last government repelled the electorate, and that known Eurosceptics did particularly badly. In fact, as they should need no reminding, almost everybody did particularly badly; and Hugh Dykes and Keith Hampson will confirm that one did not need to be a hyena of the Europhobic fight to be given the electorate's V-sign. The Conservatives lost because they had systematically lied to the people ever since the previous election, and had treated the public with utter contempt in pretending to the contrary. Also, the policy on Europe advanced before the election was not that Eurosceptic, which was why a million natural Tories voted for specifically Eurosceptic parties.

So the next leader must be Eurosceptic - preferably John Redwood, if not him Peter Lilley - and positioned to capitalise upon any cessions of sovereignty to the EU by the Blair government. He should be committed in his opposition to a single currency, and prepared to make unequivocally the constitutional case for that opposition. In economic terms he needs to be a strong free-marketeer, ready to expose any contradictions in the supposedly capitalist Blair project. He will need to develop his own views about welfare reform - the big issue the Tories avoided for too long and to which Labour is now committed - and will need to start again on the question of where the Tories stand on devolution. Although Labour denies it, the devolved government planned for Scotland and Wales will, if implemented, prove the thin end of the wedge. The Tories must decide whether they can go on pretending that they can once more be a force in the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary contingents at Westminster, or whether they would not serve their cause better as Tories in "home rule" parliaments in Scotland and Wales.

The only proper job to which a Conservative leader of the opposition can appoint anybody is the party chairmanship. …

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