Magazine article The Spectator

Strife after Death

Magazine article The Spectator

Strife after Death

Article excerpt

THE FORMER government minister, soundly thrashed by his ungrateful middleclass constituents, picked at his lunch without real enjoyment, took savage swigs of chablis and told of the moment he knew it was all over. He had asked his campaign team to telephone known Labour voters. The returns showed that a lot of them intended to vote Liberal Democrat. 'I asked myself why they were doing this and, instinctively, I knew that it was because they absolutely loathed the Conservatives. The key failure of the campaign was that we thought people were bored with the Tories but didn't quite trust Labour. The real situation was far graver. They were dying to get rid of us. Only Neil Kinnock had stopped them in 1992. We had been living on borrowed time.'

This assessment has rapidly become the post-traumatic orthodoxy of the last week. Like the bewildered and resentful citizenry, former MPs and senior supporters have discovered the joys of blaming the government for all their woes. `Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven,' says Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. This message has been slow to penetrate the defeated Tory ranks. Even ministers in the Major Cabinet now feel free to blame the government. `But you were in the government: don't you blame yourself?' I ventured to one such senior survivor. 'I don't accept that,' he said guardedly. `We were all in a difficult position.' What was that position? 'A flawed leadership, a tired party and an effective opposition.'

The recriminations now orbiting the Tory party can be broadly divided into the strategic and the tactical. Europe remains the big issue, although there is less unanimity than there was on the significance of European policy in the disaster. The traditionalist Eurosceptic analysis is put by the dogged sceptic, Bill Cash. `If we had ruled out EMU we might still have won,' he says. Another leading EMU-phobe adds, 'I am hearing all these candidates saying that we mustn't engage in recriminations. They were in the Cabinet when the Maastricht treaty was signed and throughout the dithering on a single currency. It's them I'm recriminating against. Why should we put up with the generals who lost us the first world war scrambling for our votes now?'

`The causes of this go a long way back,' counters a lieutenant of William Hague. `It's like the causes of the first world war. There's no point in starting with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It began with Nigel Lawson's policy of shadowing the deutschmark. But I'm wary of allowing Europe to take on disproportionate significance. It was not the only thing that made us unelectable.'

A backlash against the Eurosceptics is also underway. Alastair Goodlad, Mr Major's chief whip, has let it be known that he holds them and not Mr Clarke responsible for the fateful appearance of division. Even the broadly Eurosceptical foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind has let it be known that he partly blames newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for the scale of the defeat. `They hounded us,' he told friends. `It became a blood-sport.'

`Up to the election', says a pro-Europe MP, `the Eurosceptics behaved as if they were the repository of wisdom and the followers of Kenneth Clarke were the aberration. We now know that this is not true. If people really feared the single currency, they would not have voted in such numbers for the Labour party which is much more likely to move in this direction.' Mr Clarke is preparing to campaign against `capital E Euroscepticism' - something he believes led the party to appear to many voters as being constituted of paranoid obsessives.

But his own rampant enthusiasm in the Major government for a single currency remains a source of bitterness. 'Why', says a former Cabinet colleague, `did such a talented man, who had bided his time and gritted his teeth to get into a commanding position in the party, throw it all away just to shore up a couple of European leaders who don't give a tuppenny damn about him? …

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