How to Save the Tory Party

By Steyn, Mark | The Spectator, October 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

How to Save the Tory Party


Steyn, Mark, The Spectator


New Hampshire

Readers may recall that, back in the glory days of New Labour, I wrote a piece for The Spectator on how the Blair project seemed to boil down to the Canadianisation of Britain -i.e., the replacement of the hereditary House of Lords (which is hard to make the case for) with an Ottawa-style all-appointed Upper House of pliant deadbeats (which ought to be impossible to make the case for); the introduction of varispeed parliaments in the Celtic regions -or what Canadians call 'asymmetrical federalism' (Quebec controls its own immigration policy, Alberta docs not). Even the desperate wannabe hipness of 'Cool Britannia' produced nothing tangible until last year's Olympic gold medal at the hitherto Canadian sport of curling, providing final confirmation of my thesis that 'Cool Britannia' was cool mainly in the sense that Yellowknife in February is.

I had hoped that Canadianisation would become the dominant paradigm through which the Blair era was viewed, but unfortunately it involves finding out stuff about Canada, which few Fleet Street colossi seem to be able to muster the energy for. Still, recent developments have reminded me of the general soundness of my theorem. For example, the collapse a decade ago and the inability to recover of the Conservative party. In Canada, even when there is widespread disenchantment with the government and its leader, this somehow never translates into support for the conservative opposition.

Ring any bells? Here's something else: because the unelectability of the conservatives is assumed by everyone from the media to the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition himself, what passes for competitive politics tends to be conducted within the ruling party. In Ottawa for most of the last decade, the talk was of when the prime minister would make way for the finance minister - his heir apparent and leader of the real opposition - and whether he'd reneged on any understandings he'd given his colleague re his retirement. Sound familiar?

Following Canadian precedent, the next British election will look like this: at the start of the campaign, Mr Blair may well be considered to have outstayed his welcome and the Tories' poll numbers may well suggest that victory is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility; but, after six weeks of prolonged exposure to Mr Duncan Smith and co., Labour will be reelected with a comfortable majority. No wonder, as Michael Gove wrote here last week, that in the Tory party 'a universal darkness covers all'. Last year, the universal darkness was because Edwina had carelessly slung a metaphorical pair of John Major's grey Y-fronts over the conference. This year, it was Betsy Duncan Smith's secretarial timesheet. There is no reason to believe this run of remarkably timely bad luck will not continue. But, in the event that the Prime Minister goes into serious decline or simply decides to chuck it, the impatient finance minister will be ready to step in and satisfy the public yearning for change by providing a pre-election switch of government - as is about to happen in Ottawa.

One other point of comparison: five years ago this month, Conrad Black launched a new Canadian national newspaper, whose personnel included yours truly, David Frum (who went on to coin - as he puts it - two thirds of the term 'axis of evil' for President Bush) and Martin Newland, who was recently appointed editor of the Daily Telegraph. Many Canadian media types complained that, although we were undoubtedly conservative, there was nothing very Canadian about our conservatism. By 'conservative' we seemed to have nothing in mind other than mimicking the Americans. Martin Newland's only been back in London for 20 minutes and already Stephen Glover's hurling the same accusations at the Telegraph: it used to be conservative in a British sense, now its conservatism just boils down to being pro-Bush, pro-Likud, etc.

There's something in this. It's a little pathetic in a settled democracy to look like your political philosophy comes mail order from overseas. …

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