The right and the wrong way of being on the Right

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The Independent Online

Of the last 55 years, the Conservatives have been in power for 35. Their predominance is explained by two long periods of office: first, under Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Home and, then, under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. No one is more conscious of this pattern than the Prime Minister. That is why, from the moment of his election, his mind was set on the second term.

It is not quite true to say that no Labour government has won a full second term. After all, Harold Wilson did precisely that in 1966. And if C R Attlee had chosen to hang on after 1950, when he had a majority of five, instead of going unsuccessfully to the country 20 months later, he could certainly have survived until 1954 or 1955 and possibly won an election in one of those years. But this is yet another "What if?" question. The pattern is clear. No two Labour administrations have lasted more than six years. That is what Mr Tony Blair, inspired by his conversations with Lord Jenkins, is intent on remedying.

What has been remarked less often - indeed, it is something of a heresy - is that the Conservatives have been successful while moving to the right. The only recent leader who could be considered on the left by the standards of his own time was Eden, the populariser of "a property owning democracy". The phrase was originally coined in the 1920s by one of his less famous friends, the Tory MP Noel Skelton.

Eden was chosen by the Queen in succession to Churchill. There was really no other rival, though R A Butler and Christopher Soames had run the 1951 government between them in those lengthy periods when Churchill, Eden or both were laid low. She went on to choose Macmillan over Butler in 1957 and Home over Butler again in 1963.

The extent to which these choices reflected opinion in the party is still disputed by political historians. But the party put up with them, having little choice in the matter. What is indisputable is that Home was to the right of Butler, who would, I think, have defeated Wilson in 1964 if he had been given the chance. So had Macmillan been to the right of Butler. He had certainly presented himself as occupying this position, whatever he may have got up to later on.

We tend to forget now the royalist principles under which the Conservative Party used to organise itself until quite recently. That was because most of its leaders had reached their position by being appointed prime minister while a Conservative government was in office: a sign of the party's predominance not only since 1945 but throughout the last century. There were a few exceptions. Bonar Law, to the displeasure of George V, refused to become prime minister until he had been elected leader of the party. Neville Chamberlain remained leader until October 1940, though he had been supplanted by Churchill as prime minister in May of that year. Even so, Conservative MPs had little to do with the matter, party supporters nothing at all.

Democracy came through the changes thought up by the late Humphry Berkeley which were - perhaps surprisingly - welcomed or, at any rate, accepted by Home. In the first contest under the new rules, Edward Heath defeated Reginald Maudling, the representative of consensus and concord. Sir Edward was, by contrast, in that favourite word of the day, "abrasive". At the beginning of his 1970 government he was John the Baptist to Margaret Thatcher. It was not then a sign of being on the left to be in favour of joining Europe: quite the reverse.

In 1965 the Conservatives had chosen the more rightist candidate. They went on to prefer Margaret Thatcher to William Whitelaw; John Major to Michael Heseltine; William Hague to Kenneth Clarke. On every occasion when they have had a choice - and on those previous occasions when the choice was made formally by the Palace - they have ended up with a leader to the right of his or her rivals.

What this shows is that, historically, there is nothing aberrant about Mr Hague's placing himself on the right of his party. In itself, it is no bar to winning an election. Sir Edward demonstrated this in 1970 after a Hague-like preliminary period in opposition, as did Lady Thatcher from 1979, three times in a row.

Certainly Mr Hague's latest antics have not been pretty to watch. It has all been rather nasty. But who started the fuss about asylum seekers? It was the Daily Mail. Before that paper took them up as a threat to civil society ranking only behind paedophiles and purveyors of child pornography, few had heard of them or, if they had, they did not realise they were such a menace to the polity as the Mail made out.

The political parties then began to conduct a Dutch auction about which would be beastlier to these unfortunate people. The Liberal Democrats refused to join in, much to the credit of Mr Charles Kennedy, who receives precious little from anybody else these days. Mr Jack Straw says: we are being as beastly to these people as we possibly can be. Mr Hague and Miss Ann Widdecombe reply: you are not being nearly beastly enough. There is a lot more you could do in that line, for example, by building special camps - though in reality they are confined in what are in effect camps of some description as it is.

No doubt thumbscrews and boiling oil might be introduced at some stage of the proceedings. Meanwhile Mr Straw goes to Dover and, wearing a silly yellow coat, watches some people and their meagre belongings being removed peacefully from a lorry, the television cameras conveniently to hand to record the entire spectacle.

The case of Mr Tony Martin is different. Admittedly the Daily Mail placed itself on his side from the moment of his arrest. But at the same time many humane and enlightened citizens are worried because he was convicted of murder and is beginning a sentence of life imprisonment. Here the politicians are not conducting a Dutch auction into which of them can be beastliest to someone like Mr Martin. On the contrary: they are aware of the public unease. What they are adamant about is that murder should carry an automatic life sentence.

Grasp that (as Malcolm Muggeridge used to say) and you grasp all. Mr Straw says it. Mr Hague agrees, but adds that someone in Mr Martin's position should always be charged with manslaughter only. The judges want more flexibility in fixing the penalty for murder, and they are right. But the politicians will not allow them to have this. Even so, Mr Hague would have done better to take proper legal advice about murder and manslaughter before sounding off as he did.

There is nothing electorally unprofitable or even wrong in being on the right. Mr Blair is himself a living demonstration of this. What is foolish is to play into the Prime Minister's hands, as Mr Hague constantly does. However, he has so far done better in real elections than in opinion polls, leading articles, political columns or Times news stories. Thursday looks as if it will once again bear out this truth.