Bruce Anderson: Never have the Tories been so demoralised

At present almost any intellectually self-confident Tory is deficient in intellect
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The Independent Online

No doubt some Tory MPs are already suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Tiring of the swimming pool, the golf course, the grouse moor; wishing, perhaps, that they could spend a little less time with their families, these political obsessives might welcome a phone call from a candidate or canvasser. But those tempted to telephone know that they would probably run into a barrage of cross wives and teasing children. Concluding that it was safer to wait until September, most of the campaigns have observed a tacit August truce.

Not Sir Malcolm Rifkind. He has given an interview in which he deplored the Tory Party's defective performance over the past eight years and urged his fellow MPs to choose a candidate, such as himself, who could reconnect with the public mood. In a dig at David Davis, the bookies' favourite, Mr Rifkind warned his party against choosing a Tory version of Neil Kinnock, who might go down well with hard-liners but who would not convince the voters that he was a potential Prime Minister.

Sir Malcolm had every incentive to step up the pace and to remind Tory MPs that he is a candidate. He said that his long period away of Parliament - he lost his seat in 1997 - had given him the opportunity to view politics from the outside. It has also given his fellow Tory MPs an opportunity to forget who he is.

Almost half the Tory Parliamentary Party has been elected to the commons since 1997. To a lot of the youngsters, Malcolm Rifkind is merely a name from the past, and not a glorious past at that. It is still, alas, almost impossible to persuade many younger Tory MPs of the merits of the Major government.

So Sir Malcolm's distinguished record of high office counts less in his favour that it ought to. Nor has he yet been able to deploy his other great asset. Malcolm Rifkind is not only a fine speaker; he is one of the very few orators in the House of Commons (fewer still, since Robin Cook's death). Sir Malcolm's main hope of becoming a credible leadership candidate was to remind those who knew him of his prowess as a speaker, and to astound the young.

But the brief post-election Parliamentary session did not give him many opportunities. Even though he used the ones that came his way, it was impossible for him to make sufficient impression. By the end of July, there was little sign of significant Rifkind momentum, especially as Ken Clarke had also joined the race. Some of the older Tory MPs who might have been Rifkind supporters had voted for Ken in his 1997 and 2001 leadership challenges. They were rather expecting to do the same again.

Sir Malcolm will have one more chance. This year's Tory Party conference will be a beauty contest. The candidates will be using their moment at the rostrum to make their case, and as they have had a lot of notice that they will be required to deliver the most important speech of their political career, it will be surprising if they do not all perform well. But I will make two linked predictions. The first is that Malcolm Rifkind will make the best speech at the conference. The second, that it will not be enough to relaunch his campaign.

This does not mean that his criticisms of the Tory Party should be disregarded. He is right to argue that the Tories have spent too much of the past eight years talking about the questions which concern them, such as Europe, and too little time addressing the public's anxieties. Despite all the hazards of moving into traditional Labour territory, the Tory Party must be convincing on the custodianship of the public services before it can make a realistic challenge for power.

By 1997, the Tories had forfeited the public's confidence. A lot of voters were inclined to believe that Tory politicians came from some strange tribe of rich, self-indulgent, insensitive beings with no insight into ordinary people's lives and no interest in defending their interests. That this grotesque libel took root under John Major, whose entire life and personality should have refuted it, is a sign of the depths of the Tories' difficulties.

Sir Malcolm is by no means the first to identify them. From 1997 onwards, a substantial majority of thoughtful Tories have been aware of the need to win the argument on public services. In that respect, Malcolm Rifkind is saying nothing new. Nor is he providing answers to the problems which he has raised. He is proposing an 18-month period of consultation on the public services. That might seem a good idea, but for one factor. Since 1997, every Tory leader and large numbers of shadow ministers have been consulting about the public services. We have been repeatedly assured that lessons were being learned and best practices identified.

The files in Conservative Central Office are full of interesting research material. But this has not been transmuted into politics. For that to happen, the Tories will need more than consultation and research. They have an urgent requirement for big ideas and striking phrases.

That need is easier to identify than to satisfy. After all, despite his political gifts, Tony Blair had no big ideas on the public services, and few good phrases. We did start out with "think the unthinkable" about the social security budget. Within a few months, it became unthinkable to think and not only about social security. As for phrases, there was "education, education, education". We now know what that meant: A-levels for all.

This brings us to the Tories' greatest problem: how to deal with Tony Blair. They have never been able to decide whether Mr Blair was a mere candy-floss merchant, bound to be seen through at any moment - or whether he was an invincible electoral genius, who had reshaped British politics to such an extent that the Tory Party had to start out all over again, if it was to survive.

The truth is that he has always been a bit of both. Alternating between the two personas, he has certainly succeeded in demoralising the Tory Party. I have never known the Tory Party more bereft of intellectual self-confidence. At present, indeed, it is almost invariably true that any intellectually self-confident Tory is deficient in intellect.

That will have to be rectified, and it will need more than a consultation process on public services. Before choosing their leader, Tory MPs should assess the various candidates' critiques of Tony Blair. On that, there is scope for big ideas and scintillating phrases.