Magazine article Public Finance

A Bumpy Ride for the Tories

Magazine article Public Finance

A Bumpy Ride for the Tories

Article excerpt

Blackpool in October is never short of entertainment, but the resort town will next week play host to a political event that will offer an alternative to the illuminations and the Pleasure Beach for fun and games. Not even the remake of Pride and Prejudice can match the passion and drama of this year's Conservative Party conference as the activists search desperately for their very own Mr Darcy. Will it be the young, dashing Old Etonian, David Cameron, or the slightly roguish David Davis? Perhaps the activists will swoon for Liam Fox, the GP with the bedside charm, or even for the ageing roué himself, Kenneth Clarke?

With the Tories throwing out their proposed leadership rule change, it is possible we will not even know the answer to this question by the end of the year. This will be eight months after Michael Howard announced his intention to stand down following the Conservatives' third successive election defeat. The protracted nature of this leadership campaign readily lends itself to admittedly flippant comparisons such as that above, although the Forsyte Saga might have been a more appropriate literary analogy. As the Tories head for Blackpool, they must feel themselves to be bit-part players in a long-running soap opera in which the main characters chop and change, but the plot stays the same.

Will it be any different this time? Given the personalities involved in this contest, they offer Tories radically different options for the future. A David Davis leadership, which seems most likely, will commit the party to lower taxes, a smaller state, greater 'localism', radical public service reform and more emphasis on individual liberties.

Kenneth Clarke, with his track record of lengthy service in senior office, would be a more traditionally paternalist Tory leader, a throwback to a time when the party savoured an almost unchallenged right to govern. Clarke offers familiarity, but this is both a strength and weakness: he is a reminder of a time when the Conservatives enjoyed success but is also a relic of an age that has passed.

Beginning next week, the Conservatives must decide whether they intend to move on or risk stagnation. Inevitably, this conference is billed as a beauty parade of leadership hopefuls in a re-run of the 1963 gathering in the same town after Harold Macmillan resigned. But it is more important even than that.

The greatest danger the party faces is the one more heave' mentality. This is the belief that the last election - in which Labour secured just 36% of the vote and only 22% of the potential electorate - demonstrated a fatal weakness in the government that an apparently popular leader like CIarke could exploit. The argument here is that he can win back former Tory voters who have deserted to Labour or the Liberal Democrats in a way that Davis, more associated with the Right, cannot.

The opinion polls certainly suggest that, among the electorate at large, Clarke is the Conservative they most admire - but this is as much a function of his grandee status as anything else. He is, simply, someone people know and recognition translates into support in surveys, but not necessarily at the ballot box.

If anything, the last election was worse for the Conservatives than 2001, despite the gain of 30 seats. In a fascinating analysis of the result, Michael Portillo, who once harboured hopes of the leadership himself, pointed out that most of the Tory gains occurred because the LibDems took votes from Labour while Conservative support was unchanged.

In 2005, Labour lost a number of seats that it had taken from the Tories in the 1990s, but they went to the LibDems. After 2001, the Conservatives were in second place in 356 seats, but after May this year, they are second in only 269 constituencies. In other words, should Labour falter at the next election, the LibDems are as well placed as the Tories to pick up the seats.

Moreover, at the May election, the Conservative proportion of the poll fell in Labour-held seats, as it did in every sub region of the Midlands and northern England. …

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