Books: Not waving, but drowning

Whatever Happened to the Tories by Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett, Fourth Estate, pounds 25 Collapse of Stout Party by Julian Critchley and Morris on Halcrow, Gollancz, pounds 17.99,; Why did the Conservative Party get things so wrong for so long? As the first post-debacle conference ends, John Biffen assesses two inquests by his former parliamentary colleagues

In May the Conservative Party suffered a shattering defeat. The inevitable inquest has begun with these two well-timed books. Ian Gilmour's ranges widely, and traces Conservative fortunes since 1945. He writes with authority and style on the period preceding Heath's leadership. In particular, he underlines the devious role of Macmillan in the Suez crisis and the quiet but highly professional way in which Home promoted his own chances for the Premiership in 1963.

These episodes demonstrate that, in terms of policies and personalities, the Tories could be ruthless. They also had a cohesion enabling the party to govern effectively despite unpopularity. Gilmour fears these qualities have been lost because the party has been driven into a cul-de-sac by the ideological policies of Thatcherism, particularly where they concern Europe.

Julian Critchley joins Gilmour in this view. His contribution is more acerbic, but both authors proclaim themselves - and their current hero, Kenneth Clarke - to be one-nation Conservatives. Wisely, they do not explain the details of this political hallmark, knowing its value as an imprecise word bite.

A more realistic view is struck by Morrison Halcrow, Critchley's journalist co-author. He makes a good analysis of the government's agonies after 1992. The cabinet had misjudged the pace of economic recovery which - with the ERM debacle - led to a crucial loss of confidence. This was compounded by a policy of income tax cuts which contrasted perversely with restrictions on social spending. The absence of a reliable majority limited any scope for a Tory initiative through legislation. Westminster became a shouting ring and not a workplace.

Halcrow rightly underlines the corrosive impact of ministerial resignations and the findings of the Scott and Nolan reports. These did not reveal merely a little moral difficulty; they reinforced the public unease that the long Conservative rule had resulted in a fatal lowering of standards. This chimed with the a general view that after unbroken Tory office since 1979 it was now "time for a change". Such a view was powerfully reinforced by the skill with which Tony Blair presented a revised Labour policy.

Quite early in the 1992 Parliament, there was a widespread Tory anxiety that Labour would win the next election. It was felt that the political agenda should be rewritten to sharpen the political divide. Hence the talk of "clear blue water". Many Tories felt the European issue would provide the chance to develop a new and compelling debate. The opportunity was provided by the Maastricht treaty and its subsequent passage through Parliament, protracted by the determination of Labour to offer no assistance to the government in voting down its Euro sceptics. Once Maastricht was concluded, the Conservative party became locked in a continuing acrid debate about monetary union and the single currency. Labour sat happily on the sidelines.

Tory Eurosceptics who believed that Europe could dominate the election were mistaken. There was a Tory sceptic tide in both the country and Westminster, but it would never have compelled John Major to dispense with many key members of his government. Secondly, the referendum policy adopted by Labour and the Liberals put them in a good tactical position as they could decline to make Europe an election issue. Tony Blair had an election agenda which suited him, and he was not going to widen it. He was totally successful. As Gilmour observes: "For the voters, Europe was not an important issue."

Europe was a central issue for the Conservatives, and the divisions it engendered were to some extent damaging. Gilmour and Critchley, in sharp personal comments, make clear how embittered was the clash of views. Inevitably, Major is blamed for weak leadership. On Critchley's analysis: "The party was split over Europe from top to bottom." That being so, is it realistic to suppose that Major could have muzzled his dissidents? His policy of trimming and compromise was designed to hold the party together. It was damage limitation, and whilst it may not have been heroic, at least there was no major split.

The European argument will continue. Gilmour and particularly Critchley make reasoned arguments favouring monetary union. Both concede that the objectives are political rather than economic. This is not a novel argument, but the political and economic cases need to be more clearly defined and clinically assessed. They are too important for wordbites. Critchley expresses concern lest anyone would "fudge" entry into EMU, but a cadre of continental creative statisticians is doing just that.

It is nothing extraordinary for Tory pragmatists to fear that European political unity is racing ahead of economic judgment. There has never been any British euphoria about the creation of large-scale political institutions. As Critchley observes, even Winston Churchill "was a nationalist who saw a united Europe in terms of British leadership". So the debate will continue, and I hope it will observe Ian Gilmour's dictum that "all political theories are at best inadequate, at worst false".

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