The Tories know their leader cannot win. So why do they not depose him?

History suggests that their problem is that they are displaying too little angst, rather than too much
Click to follow

The British Conservatives are showing all the symptoms of a party in deep crisis. Headlines of unprecedented ferocity talk of open plots against the leader. The BBC hesitates about using a story on Iain Duncan Smith's expenses which some Tory MPs fear, and many hope, will precipitate his downfall. The polls display a stubborn unwillingness by the electorate to allow his party to be used a vehicle for their growing irritation with a Labour government. This must, surely, be as bad as it gets.

In a fringe speech yesterday, Stephen Dorrell spelt out in stark terms the lameness of the excuse used by the leadership for the ignominious defeat at the hands of the Liberal Democrats in Brent East, namely that the seat was not "natural Conservative territory" and that it was a "protest vote." As Dorrell pointed out, you only have to go back to 1977, when the Conservatives won a by-election in the safe Labour mining seat of Ashfield on a 20 percent swing, to see what nonsense this explanation is.

Against this background, history suggests that the Conservatives' problem is that they are displaying too little angst rather than too much. It ought to be impossible to detect signs of complacency in Blackpool but it isn't. From at least one shadow cabinet member close to the leader emerges a new explanation for the party's plight. Which is that because the economy is in good shape, because living standards continue to rise, the party's current showing in the polls, which, it is emphasised is better than at any time since the September 2000 fuel protests, suggests it is doing pretty well. This may sound plausible. In reality it's the flip side of a kind of revolutionary defeatism, which yearns for an economic crisis as the only means to power.

It was a given in the early 1980s, when the Labour Party was tearing itself apart under Michael Foot, that the plight of an opposition could not get any worse. Hindsight now shows that to be a serious delusion. For the ideological differences which raged within Labour in that period were, it now turns out, a sign of life absent in a modern Conservative Party characterised not so much by overt division but by a kind of paralysed unity.

On the face of it, it is incredible that a parliamentary party which helped to remove Margaret Thatcher, who had won three elections, now shrinks from removing a leader who nobody seems to think will win one. There is more than one reason for this. One factor is the party's hybrid leadership rules, which give MPs the right to remove the leader but leave to members of the voluntary party the final say over who should replace him. This puts the consequences of a political assassination beyond the control of the would-be assassins. As it is, it is far easier in Blackpool to find Tories who would like to see Iain Duncan Smith replaced than ones prepared to agree among themselves over who should succeed him.

It's commonplace to deride the Tories as being so used to power that they cannot shed the belief that they will quite soon return to office as of right. But the malaise is arguably more serious than that. For sheer fear among MPs about how many of them would lose their own seats because of the hated poll tax was undoubtedly a factor in the 1990 regicide. That fear no longer exists. Rightly or wrongly, the threat of a LibDem surge is seen here as exaggerated. But in any case recent polls suggest that while a flight of Labour supporters to the LibDems may help the latter to take seats off the Conservatives, it could also deliver perhaps as half as many Tory-Labour marginals to the Conservatives. There are limits, in other words, to how much smaller the Tory party in the Commons can get. Fear of losing seats - one motive among MPs for removing a leader - is itself removed.

This is not to belittle advances made in constituency selections - the choice of one openly gay man and a black businessman in winnable seats in the last ten days are good examples. Or the well-argued unfurling at the weekend of a credible costed policy on pensions by David Willets - an intelligent professional with the commendable interest in office which informs every front rank politician. But that impulse still remains much less prevalent than it was, not least, it seems, among MPs.

And that in turn has consequences. It makes the party more comfortable than it should be about ducking some of the tougher questions the party needs to face if it is to begin its own march back to electability. Here, Europe, the issue the leadership least discusses, but the one that most drives its political ambitions, is all too relevant.

To take one example: David Davis, a man of the right who would certainly like to lead the party, and a creditable performer at yesterday's packed Independent fringe meeting, has a remarkable piece of ammunition if he chose to use it. He could point out that for all his deep Euroscepticism, night after night, as a whip, he fought to contain, for the sake of a Conservative government, a Maastrict rebellion led by Mr Duncan Smith and others which subordinated the cause of Conservatism to that of ideological opposition to any form of European integration. Yet in the present climate it's hard to imagine him ever firing it.

Which is where Ken Clarke, once again, comes in. He has dismayed some of his supporters by refusing to sign up the fashionable cause of a referendum on the new European constitutional treaty. Can't he do what Charles Kennedy has done, they ask, and back a referendum even if reserving his right to go for a yes vote? But this is Clarke as Prince Rupert of the Rhine, uncompromisingly true to his own constancy as a politician.

In his explanation at the Independent fringe meeting yesterday of how the proposed Treaty simply didn't match up to its billing as a superstate, and his implicit warning that those seeking a no vote are prepared to risk withdrawal, Clarke is closer to the instincts of the British people than is the current leadership. At the very least it is a message deigned to bring back some of those centrist Tory forces that are so dormant at present.

But that isn't all. On a range of issues, especially tax where he urged the party to put off tax cuts until the public services are in the kind of shape the Tories say they can put them in, he urged them by implication to remove what remains of the confusion at the heart of the Conservative message. The real oddity is that Clarke - for all the gibes about his age -- is arguably the party's leading moderniser, able as Blair was in the mid-Nineties to tell his party things they don't want to hear.

The surprising sense at yesterday's meeting is that it because of that, rather than despite it, that he was applauded so warmly. There is a glimmer of a realisation here about what the party lost when it refused to make him leader. And unless the party starts to sense just what a crisis it is in, it has no grounds for hope.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments