Magazine article The Spectator

He Who Fights Well, Wins

Magazine article The Spectator

He Who Fights Well, Wins

Article excerpt

A COUPLE of years ago, the Prime Minister used some powerful imagery. It was during one of the Tory Party's frequent bouts of self-destruction, and Mr Major was addressing his own backbenchers in an attempt to recall them to sanity. He told them that they had behaved like soldiers in a defensive square who would pick up their rifles as if to confront the enemy, but who always turned inwards before opening fire.

His audience was impressed. As they filed out, many MPs looked chastened; some of them were making resolutions to behave better in future. So they may have done, for about five minutes.

Whether the Government wins or loses the next election, future historians of the Tory Party will regard its past few years with bewilderment. They will ask themselves how it was that the most formidable election-winning machine in the history of democratic politics degenerated into a panicstricken rabble. That process antedates Mr Major; it began in 1989, and Mrs Thatcher was its first victim. But one might have thought that after winning an election against all expectations and in the depths of a recession, the Party would have come to its senses, and that as the economy recovered, so would its esprit de corps. Not so. This has been one of the very few periods in its history when the Tory Party has seemed determined to live down to Mill's infamous description, and to ensure that, instead of `It's the economy, stupid,' the catch-phrase for the next election is: `It's the stupid party.'

It is not just discipline that has broken down; so has civility. The old Westminster adage, that you find your opponents opposite you but your enemies behind you, never used to be true of the Tory Party. It is now. Europe is a large part of the explanation, but not all of it, for the trouble had started before the European issue boiled over. Mrs Thatcher was undermined by inflation and the community charge, not by Europe. She was ousted, not because her colleagues thought her too anti-European, but because they thought that the electorate had become too anti-Thatcher. It was, admittedly, Geoffrey Howe who precipitated the final crisis, which he would not have done but for Europe. Without the other factors, however, he could not have done it.

Europe then became the grievance of grievances, just when the Party had lost the habits of authority and obedience. For the past six years, Mr Major has adopted an infinitely complex approach. Aware that his Party is evolving in a Eurosceptic direction - and therefore towards his own views, as long as scepticism is not confused with withdrawal - he has tried to ensure that the evolution did not split the Party and force it from office. He has sought to advance Britain's interests in Europe while resisting further federalising. Above all, he has encouraged the expansion of the EU, knowing that a larger Union could never be united. This strategy has required subtlety, indeed duplicity; not the courage of Achilles, but the cunning of Ulysses. It has, therefore, been too grown-up for most of his Cabinet colleagues to follow, let alone his backbenchers. In time, he may be vindicated, but not in time for the election.

The Tory Party is in serious danger of losing the next election because until about 18 months ago most of its MPs did not believe that this could really happen. Perhaps they were deceived into thinking that the unexpected victory in 1992 had conferred political immortality on their Party. But over the past 18 months there have been a lot of defections from complacency to despair.

The soundest men in the Tory Party are now Leninists, in that their watchword is Lenin's dictum borrowed from Hegel: `Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.' They are determined to fight on in John Major's army until the battle is finally lost and a good fight can sometimes achieve unexpected results. But politicians are creatures of calculation and speculation. At the end of the day's business, they enjoy nothing more than discussing who's up, who's down over a glass or two; appraising the rising figures (always hoping that one will insist on including them in the list), dismissing the declining ones: not just planning the next reshuffle, but forecasting the key personalities who will shape the Party's future. …

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