Can Major save the Tory state?

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The Independent Online
WHAT ARE the Tories going to do? Tony Blair's arrival on the centre ground of British politics throws down a challenge to the Major government which requires a grown- up reply. Bournemouth may resound next week to nothing more than the crackle and pop of cheap shots about Clause IV and Arthur Scargill. But to reduce what is happening in British politics to exchanges of abuse between a few fundamentalist socialists and the gag writers from Central Office would be a swindle. And, for the Conservatives, it would be a full- scale, technicolour blunder.

But the party of government has a problem. Does it try to address Mr Blair's cogent and provocative analysis of what has gone wrong, reasserting a Toryism that is European in outlook, attuned to the need for some social reconstruction and sensitive to complaints about the downgrading of local democracy? That strain of Conservativism is still present round the Cabinet table. Or does it swing rightwards, concentrating on the promise of lower taxes, welfare cuts and a further twist of the anti- European screw?

The choice will be messier than I imply, since moderate Tories as well as right-wingers are desperate for a tax-cutting strategy. But the basic choice - fight Labour head- to-head across the centre ground - or turn Mr Blair's flank on the right - go for reassurance or radicalism - cannot be fudged. The country will pick up one overriding message from the Conservatives, and they need to decide which it will be.

It is easiest for the Tories to swing rightwards. First, with the party's back against the wall, it is inclined to trust its instincts and turn populist: this is how John Major behaved during the European elections earlier this year, to the dismay of some of his most senior ministers. Second, the timing of the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference on European Union is convenient for nationalist Tories. And third, judging by the energy spent trying to neutralise Michael Portillo, the Prime Minister still thinks the biggest threat to his own position is coming from the right. The Tory left has always behaved more gently and cautiously than the right and, under this leader, is paying the penalty.

But the pluralism and moderation of Mr Blair's rhetoric this week will strengthen the hand of those moderate ministers who already fear that Mr Major has spent so long squinting at the condition of the Tory factions that he is in danger of losing sight of the mood of the nation. Can he really afford to allow the Labour leader to saunter about on the consensual centre unchallenged?

This is partly a question of rhetoric. The Prime Minister is perfectly capable of making a temperate, thoughtful response that would comprise the second half of a conversation opened by Mr Blair - of sounding measured about Europe; of affirming his genuine interest in community, in social action, even in some measure of political reform; of defending his economic record with a mixture of humour and gentle condescension; of inquiring mildly about the policies lurking behind the language of Labour modernisation. It is the likely response of the private Major. After all, he too was once seen as the plain-speaking representative of common sense and honesty. Under the chameleon guises he has worn since then, that almost-forgotten figure from 1992 may still exist.

But when he is actually in Bournemouth, surrounded by his party, the temptation will be strong to speak in tribal dialect, to refuse the conversation and retreat to the shrill conference-speak platitudes that party managers think activists love. This would do him no good in the eyes of a resentful and suspicious nation, but it would not be a wholly illogical response. Conservative Party conferences do matter - Margaret Thatcher was partly sustained in her difficult first years in power by its annual displays of support.

Mr Major believes his government is turning the corner, and he may be right, but he is also aware that another run of bad luck or bad polls would revive whispering against him after Parliament returns. That would be much less likely if he had enjoyed a 'good conference' this month. Sitting where he is this autumnal weekend, pandering to the party might seem like shrewd politics. But it is in the nature of traps to have attractive baits.

Given the current chemistry of the Tory party, pandering means, for a start, anti-Europeanism. There has been too much of it already and it is leading Mr Major into the company of those who want Britain ultimately to leave the European Union, seeking a trade association instead. He, of course, dismisses the idea with contempt, and so do most of the Cabinet. But the language of nationalism and anti-centralism has a dynamic of its own, and after a while voters will start wondering about the logical conclusion of what the Tory right (insufficiently repudiated by Mr Major) is saying. If Europe is such a threat, so wasteful and bureaucratic and bossy, what are we doing there?

Dangerous stuff. It is possible that if those countries lining up to join the Union decide not to do so, a plausible rejectionist politics could emerge here too. But if they don't, it won't. And in either case, the stark possibility of withdrawal may scare the pants off the voters: a 'Union Jack' election could work for the Tories if it was essentially a conservative message about the fear of national break-up. But if it involved a break with our recent European history it would be a disaster for the party.

The business of swinging rightwards is about more than Europe, however. Tax cuts have worked marvellously well for the Conservatives and may do so again. But these are uncertain and worrying times. There is a great mood in the country for social repair and reassurance - witness the popularity of words such as community and civil society and duty. Tories as well as their enemies have noticed it and tried to exploit it.

Even after a couple of years of recovery, it seems likely that some of that mood will remain. These are not the Eighties. And while it is true that Labour reformism requires social spending, and thus seems unlikely to match Tory tax cuts, so it is true that a Tory political strategy based on tax cuts and welfare cuts rules out much reassurance on the social side. It implies a voluntary withdrawal from the prevailing political mood - just what Tony Blair is hoping for.

My guess is that Mr Major will choose to go to the right, and engage with Labour at the cheap- shots level, and that this will prove a historic mistake. But the choice, at any rate, has to be made. We should be able to tell which way the Tories will go as early as next week. The dilemma is one that this huge and ragged coalition of a party has tried to avoid throughout the Major years and will find it very hard to settle upon now.

The stakes could not be higher. If Labour loses under Mr Blair, then Labour will always lose. But if Labour wins, then it intends to smash the political system on which the Conservatives have relied for their hegemony during most of his century: the internal British centralism will be ended, our involvement in the European Union extended, the basis of Tory fund-raising in business assaulted, and perhaps the voting system reformed. These are not small matters. We are living through a vintage conference season, and we are witnessing high politics.