Magazine article The Spectator

The Way Ahead for the Conservatives

Magazine article The Spectator

The Way Ahead for the Conservatives

Article excerpt

If we political pundits were truly blessed with the gift of accurate prophecy, we would not be writing about one of the most sordid subjects known to man. We would be earning shedloads of money as astrologers, with premium-rate telephone lines conveying our charlatanry to the masses, and conveying the masses' money back to us. Since by the time you read this we will be having, or will just have had, the most unpredictable election of modern times, it is harder than ever to base any argument on its likely outcome. I had better risk humiliation, therefore, by stating that what follows is based on the unkind assumption that on Friday afternoon Mrs Michael Howard will not be measuring up for curtains in No. 10 Downing Street.

A third consecutive defeat is something that has not happened to the Conservative party since December 1910, when Asquith received a mandate of sorts to proceed with reform of the Lords in the face of the Upper House's recalcitrance over the People's Budget of the previous year. Even then, though, the Liberal government could rule only with the help of Irish Nationalists, a fact that itself would make the next few years fraught with difficulties, even before the Great War turned up. Perhaps a surge in support for the successor party, the Liberal Democrats, at this election will have helped let in dozens of Tory candidates. Perhaps Mr Blair's majority might be drastically reduced or obliterated altogether. Perhaps. But with the party bumping along in the low to mid-30s in the opinion polls, and even when faced with a discredited prime minister and government, that overall Tory victory looks as far away as ever.

So what should the Tories do now? Irrespective of whether they have hardly improved their position at all, or whether they have made substantial gains, one thing is vital: stability. Older members will recall the legendary words of the late Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, a backbencher in the days when a good war and a double-barrelled moniker were a passport to a safe seat and the admiration of the electorate: 'Pro bono publico, nil bloody panico.'

First and foremost, that means Michael Howard continuing for the foreseeable future as leader of the party. John Major had to leave immediately after the 1997 debacle, not least since his own arrogance, selfishness and stupidity had in large measure brought it about. William Hague's departure on the dawn after the 2001 defeat was itself arrogant, selfish and stupid. What the Tory party then needed after such a trauma was continuity and a period of reflection. Instead, in the vacuum Mr Hague created, internecine conflict could thrive, and a climate could be created in which the result of the subsequent leadership contest was never accepted by a large proportion of the parliamentary party.

There is no need for the party to stage a repeat of that. Expecting the worst, friends of Mr Howard have been urging him to do nothing precipitate in the wake of a third drubbing. No clear answer had come back by the eve of poll. But Mr Howard is a clever man and an ambitious one, and he will see that little will be achieved if he chooses to go - quite the reverse, in fact. Despite the unpleasant circumstances of his arrival in the leader's job - the fabrication of evidence against the blameless wife of the then leader, accusing her of financial impropriety - he has imposed a degree of unity not seen in the party for more than 15 years. Mr Howard will be aware that, further down the food chain, there are two factions waiting to go to war. One of them coalesces around the younger generation of 'modernisers', of whom more anon; the other are older, more cunning and more ruthless partisans of Mr David Davis. Were Mr Howard to go, these two rather unlovely groups of operators would be at each other's throats within seconds.

More to the point, though, is the fundamental question: why on earth should Mr Howard go? What hideous errors has he made that have ensured his party's defeat? …

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