The Tories are being too clever by half

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The Independent Online

Malcolm Muggeridge used to be fond of quoting a sentence from a leading article in the Manchester Guardian, as it was then called, when he was on its staff between the wars: "One is sometimes tempted to conclude that the Greeks do not want a stable government.'' In the same way today, one is sometimes tempted to conclude that the Conservatives do not want to be an effective opposition.

They failed to nail Mr Tony Blair over Mr Lakshmi Mittal or Mr Stephen Byers over Mr Martin Sixsmith and the rest of the cast. In both episodes the trouble was not so much that they were not trying – though there were signs that they had not mastered the detail – as that, rather, they were trying too hard. You do not secure a minister's resignation by demanding it. A member of the government is rarely removed by a motion of censure or vote of confidence.

Neville Chamberlain was not brought down in 1940 by a defeat but by failing to secure an adequate majority on a motion for the adjournment. In the Conservative resignations of the early 1990s – Mellor, Mates, Yeo, Caithness, Tim Smith, Hamilton – the opposition played little or no part. (Mr Jonathan Aitken resigned in different circumstances, to fight a libel action which turned out disastrously for him.) The response of the late John Smith, as of the young Mr Blair, was more sorrowful than angry. These, they seemed to be saying, were private matters, best resolved within the family.

Admittedly many, though not all, the cases of the early 1990s contained a doctors-and-nurses element which could be subsumed under Mr John Major's "Back to Basics" speech, whose misinterpretation by the popular press was dealt with here last week. The representatives of the People's Party were not in the business of making moral judgements, or so they told us. Instead they were content to be part of the audience: Mr Major's expression of the fullest confidence in the erring minister; sometimes, his demand for "evidence" when no further evidence could conceivably be produced by anybody; the rumbles on the back benches; the agitation in the Conservative press; then, finally, the exchange of letters and the bowed head.

It was said that the main reason Mr Blair stood by Mr Byers as he did was that he refused to be part of a repeat performance. If so, he has clearly changed his attitude. For he got rid of Mr Peter Mandelson not once but twice, on both occasions on rather flimsier evidence than was available against Mr Byers. There we are.

Last week, once again, the Conservatives were attacking for the sake of attack. We all know the saying that the first duty of an opposition is to oppose. It was no doubt valid in more robust times, say, before 1914. Today people prefer something a little less confrontational, as the success of Mr Charles Kennedy has perhaps demonstrated – even if there are recent indications that Mr Kennedy is finding it difficult to marry his old, relaxed approach with his newly announced policy of being the true opposition to the present government.

Mr Iain Duncan Smith would gain more sympathy and, incidentally, put Mr Blair off his stroke if, occasionally, he was prepared to admit the Government was right. Thus he started off by welcoming Mr Blair's strong statement on Mr Robert Mugabe and the Commonwealth conference. Then he went on to accuse him of negligence in failing to persuade it to adopt the same astringent tone towards the dictator in question; which, as old Euclid used to say, is absurd.

Likewise, with the United States steel tariff he made the mistake of linking it to Mr Mittal's donation to the Labour Party. Mr Mittal had, it appeared, lobbied for the same levy. But the two matters are unconnected. No one seriously supposes that the policy of the US administration is influenced by Mr Mittal. The attempted linkage was too clever by half, and would have been seen as such by the voters.

It is doubtful whether they were looking. But Mr Duncan Smith's principal difficulty is that his party is not so much ignored as detested. It is difficult to see why, rationally, this should be so. But so it is. The Conservatives lost the 1945 election by a majority of 146 but in six years were back in office, even though they polled fewer votes than Labour at that election. They spent their time in opposition partly in making trouble for the Government, partly in making policy under R A Butler and his young men, who included Enoch Powell, Iain Macleod and Reginald Maudling. When he was a young man working for the Research Department, Maudling had to take some papers to Winston Churchill at his house, Chartwell, in Kent. He found the then Leader of the Opposition surrounded by smoke and back-slapping cronies. Churchill glanced perfunctorily at the papers, signed one or two and said:

"Ah Maudling, I believe I left a glass of whisky-and-soda in the library. Would you be so kind as to fetch it for me?"

Maudling did as he was asked but could find no glass of any description in the library. He consulted the butler, who said:

"Why bless you, sir, Mr Churchill didn't mean he'd left anything in the library. What he meant was that he wanted a drink but didn't see any reason to offer the other gentlemen one as well."

Of his three general elections as leader, Churchill lost two. If C R Attlee had refrained from going to the country in 1951, he might not have been given the opportunity to contest the third. He remained feared by Labour, as were Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher. Alec Home, Edward Heath, John Major and William Hague were not so regarded, though two of them unexpectedly won elections, and one of them very nearly did. Mr Hague lost massively.

The Conservatives could have had Mr Kenneth Clarke instead, but Mr Hague had topped the MPs' poll and was accordingly made leader. Four years later the party had changed its electoral system: Mr Clarke topped the MPs' poll with Mr Duncan Smith runner-up, but the contest was thrown open to the members, who chose Mr Duncan Smith.

Mass democracy was introduced into leadership contests by Labour, in a corrupt form, in 1981, and by the Conservatives, after the election of Mr Hague under the old system, in 1997. There is no precedent for a party leader who is not the first choice also of his parliamentary colleagues. It is doubtful whether he will ever be the first choice of the voters either. Mr Duncan Smith's immediate predecessor was only the second Conservative leader since 1900 to fail to become Prime Minister. The first was Austen Chamberlain. It may be that Mr Duncan Smith will turn out to be the third.