A left, a right; now they're locked in a clinch

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The Independent Online
TORIES are against voting reform, they often say, because of the bickering, paralysed coalition government it leads to. But could any coalition be as divided and self-cancelling as the one in office now? August is a dead month politically. But not even August is dead enough to calm the futile, destructive Tory civil war.

Hardly had the dew settled on the corpses of the Battle of Maastricht than the clanking, rust-stained combatants were looking for the next battlefield. Finally, they have found, to their mutual satisfaction, another acceptable patch of green sward to murder one another over: Taxorspend. (Teutonic, by the name.)

Never mind that there is a politically sensible compromise waiting to be enacted, and which will be enacted. (It will involve, I guess, no rise in income-tax rates, some rise in indirect taxes, and rigorous adherence to the current tough spending limits.) The Conservative Party is less concerned about what it fights over, than that it fights. Taxorspend is a place for a rumble, no more. The bellicosity with which pro-Major loyalists regard the rebels, and vice versa, has to be seen to be believed. Everyone, it appears, has 'got something' on everyone else. Everyone is waiting to spill the beans.

Yet the two strains of Toryism, right-radical and left-conservative, are equally weak, though in different ways.

The right is weak in being a minority inside the party. It is a larger group on the backbenches than in government, but even there it amounts to less than half. The threatened right-wing leaders of the backbench 1922 Committee would be ousted from their jobs if the pro-government loyalists and the Tory left were to join forces, as they promise to do this autumn.

But the right's most damaging weakness is its lack of a potential leadership candidate. There is no one of sufficient stature outside of government but inside the Commons; nor anyone inside government with sufficient courage or disloyalty.

So, although the dispossessed Thatcherite right has plenty of conspirators, some excellent propagandists, powerful friends in the press, clear thinkers among the younger MPs and (as this month's 'No Turning Back' pamphlet on social security reform showed) a serious radical agenda, it lacks something essential. Without a leader around which this swirling mass can coalesce, it is a viewpoint, not a movement. It cannot put up, but it cannot bear to shut up, either. It flits across the stage, lamenting, a Greek chorus with no hero.

Unfortunately for the Tory centre-left, this does not mean that the right is powerless. It has a kind of negative power, the power to paralyse its Conservative enemies.

In its first incarnation, the Major administration seemed to offer a clear break with Thatcherism. There would be a pro-European, moderate reformism that owed more to traditional Toryism than to Thatcherite radicalism. It would deregulate, improve public services and, in general, administer rather than overturn. In tone it would be liberal and self-confident.

This is a government that Britain has never experienced. Its guiding spirit was Chris Patten. Symbolically, at least, it died at Bath last year. Instead, John Major's dominating belief that the 'bastards' of the right had to be placated has meant that the Tory centre-left never quite found its voice. On Europe, the Prime Minister equivocated. One day, Britain was to be at the heart of Europe. The next, he was reassuring party workers that Britons had never really liked Europe.

This ineffective appeasement of the right exacerbated an older problem for Tory moderates, which could be called the Iain Macleod paradox. Leftish Tories are useful to the party because they can woo the progressive middle classes. But because they must prosper inside a right-wing party, they purchase their leftish heresies by spouting a fiercely Tory-sectarian line. They are obliged to protest too much.

So Macleod was famous for the savagery of his parliamentary attacks on Labour. So Michael Heseltine's anti-CND and anti-Kinnock vitriol helped to take the sting out of his more interventionist views. So, during the 1992 election, Chris Patten indulged in verbal thuggery that did not become him. So the fiercest anti-Labour attack during the last session came from the courteous, leftish David Hunt.

But this aggression does the Tory left little good with voters. It puts off the same sort of liberal, unaligned people to whom moderate Toryism would otherwise so usefully appeal. Mr Major himself alienates his natural constituency in the country every time he ingratiates himself with his Thatcherites. The Tory left may have the Cabinet. But it is, politically, nearly as weak as the Tory right.

Perhaps, on reflection, the military imagery I started with is not sufficient to convey the futility of this struggle, self-cancelling in its effects, decadent in its result. It is as if two exhausted boxers were locked in an immobile clinch - still standing, supporting one another, but unable to move independently. The radical right is weak and cannot lead. The Tory left is wrapped limply round the panting body of the radical right. If Britain's Conservative coalition is to regain the initiative this winter, it must break this frozen clinch - somehow, anyhow. My guess is that it cannot.