Perspective: Let's Stick Together; It Has Not Been a Good Week for the Tories but as the Party Heads to Bournemouth for Its Annual Conference, Political Editor Jonathan Walker Argues That It Is Time for Them to Present a United Front
Byline: Jonathan Walker
Backbiting, betrayal and duplicity characterised last year's Conservative Party conference.
It sounds disastrous - but that wasn't how many Tories saw it.
The intrigues last year led the way to the overthrow of Iain Duncan Smith as party leader. And while sections of the grassroots membership were horrified to see such treachery, MPs tended to regard it as a sad but necessary act. IDS was a vote-loser, and had allowed Tony Blair to sail through choppy political waters unscathed and largely unchallenged, at a time when the Labour Prime Minister was looking weak.
A new leader was required, to take the fight to Labour, land some solid punches on Blair and put the Tories back into a position where they could win an election.
One year one, it's not at all clear that the plan has worked.
As the Conservative faithful begin their conference in Bournemouth today, they must be wondering just what they need to do to convince the British people to trust them with power again.
The result of the Hartlepool byelection is the worst possible opening for the conference.
Despite Labour's victory in Peter Mandelson's old seat, the party's support was way down compared with the 2001 General Election with the majority slashed from 14,571 to 2,033.
But those disaffected Labour voters did not switch to the Tories, even though the Conservatives had come second in the seat at the last General Election. Instead, they backed the Liberal Democrats - with the Conservatives pushed into fourth place, behind the United Kingdom Independence Party.
And Hartlepool is not an isolated example. Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South both saw the Tories pushed down from second place, with the Liberal Democrats - who had been third in 2001 in both seats - leapfrogging them to become the challengers to Labour. Despite understandable Lib Dem euphoria, these results do not mean they are set to enjoy similar spectacular successes when the General Election comes around.
But they do suggest that when voters decide to look for an alternative to Labour, the party they choose is not the Conservatives.
Iain Duncan Smith suffered only one similar by-election disaster, in Brent East last September, where once again Labour was beaten by the Liberal Democrats - not the Tories - despite the Tories having come second in 2001. This humiliation helped to seal his fate. The Conservatives have offered some excuses for their poor showing in recent by-elections. All have been held in safe Labour seats which the Tories would not seriously hope to win in a general election.
There may have been a large mass of former Labour voters up for grabs, but these electors were probably resolutely anti-Tory too.
So it shouldn't have come as such a huge surprise if the party voters switched to was the Lib Dems.
But this argument ignores two important points. First, national opinion polls have consistently shown the Conservatives on a level-pegging with Labour - sometimes a point or two ahead, sometimes a point or two behind.
Governing parties tend to poll badly in mid-term, and pick up support when the election comes. If Mr Howard's Conservatives were going to make a breakthrough, they should have made it by now, especially given Labour's recent problems.
Not only has the Iraq war divided the country and cast doubt in the minds of some voters about Mr Blair's integrity, but Labour is now routinely characterised as a divided party, supposedly the worst electoral sin a political party can commit.
Second, it's simply not true that working class voters can never be convinced to vote Tory. Of course, the inner cities are always going to be Labour's strongest areas. But the 'respectable working class' was once a bedrock of Tory support. And Margaret Thatcher knew how to appeal to council estates (in particular by allowing the residents to buy their own homes). …