The Tories who fear their own one-party state

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The Independent Online
John Major was asked at a London breakfast meeting with business leaders yesterday how he reacted to the widespread view that it was time for a change of government, for the good of democracy.

The Prime Minister gave a polished politician's reply, brushing the question aside. But privately, other Tory MPs are worried about just that. Away from the microphones, they are warning that the re-election of the Conservatives for a fifth term could damage democracy - and even lead to civil unrest by disaffected voters.

Other Tory MPs warn that if Labour is defeated again, the arrogance of the Conservative leadership would be aggravated, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would be "ripped to shreds" in an orgy of Labour self-recrimination.

Speaking to The Independent on conditions of strict anonymity, one senior government backbencher said: "We have got to work hard at renewing our election mandate, but will it be good for British democracy? I doubt it. If the Conservatives win, as on the arguments they ought, then I believe they have not yet even begun to see the depths of unpopularity to which the party would sink thereafter. With the real prospect of civil unrest to follow.

"We had in Thatcher's day the poll tax riots. You would be encouraging, particularly amongst the young, increased enthusiasm for extra-parliamentary activity.

"I think that each time the Tories have won, particularly in 1992, their victory - and this is not their fault - their victory led to the lack of respect for members of the system, the lack of interest in using Parliament as an institution.

"There has been a growth of extra-parliamentary activity of one form or another; passive, non-passive, violent, non-violent, whatever it may be."

One MP said parliamentary democracy became parliamentary dictatorship when 51 dictated to 49. That became "insufferable" if the minority never got a chance of taking over the levers of power.

Another Tory backbencher said: "Quite apart from Labour's frustration after a fifth defeat, we have to ask about the disenchanted voters - and how they would feel about never getting a shot in the football game."

He also wondered what impact another win would have on Government arrogance; shown by blanket attacks on the minimum wage, the unpunished incompetence of the way in which the BSE beef crisis had been handled, and the current attempt to introduce draconian bugging and burglary powers through the Police Bill.

"If we cannot expect a Conservative government to defend our freedoms, what is the point? We are now supposed to be obedient to the views and judgements of a very narrow presidential cabinet system," he said. One MP said it was one of the basic assumptions of the unwritten British constitution that, "from time to time the government will change".

But he also warned that if Labour lost, its situation would be dire because the party had bitten its tongue, shut its mouth, and watched "appalled" as Mr Blair had carried out the modernisation of New Labour.

The MPs' anxieties reflect a growing sense of Westminster disquiet about the consequences of a fifth Tory term of office. Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has already warned of the risks of a one-party state, and of the Tories' belief in their "divine right to rule", arguing that they would take another win as a mandate to do whatever they liked to the welfare state.