Face the facts: there is no Tory breakthrough

A cynic might wonder if the polls would have been much different if they had stuck with IDS
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The Independent Online

On the assumption that a general election will be held on 5 May next year, we are a mere nine months away from the dissolution of Parliament. So Michael Howard is probably at the halfway point in his leadership of the Tory party, before the voters pass their ultimate judgement. He has approximately the same amount of time at the helm ahead of him, before the election, as he has used up since he took over at the beginning of last November. But the much-heralded Tory breakthrough has still to materialise. The latest YouGov poll shows that the Tories are currently on 34 per cent, Labour on 33 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent.

On the assumption that a general election will be held on 5 May next year, we are a mere nine months away from the dissolution of Parliament. So Michael Howard is probably at the halfway point in his leadership of the Tory party, before the voters pass their ultimate judgement. He has approximately the same amount of time at the helm ahead of him, before the election, as he has used up since he took over at the beginning of last November. But the much-heralded Tory breakthrough has still to materialise. The latest YouGov poll shows that the Tories are currently on 34 per cent, Labour on 33 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent.

More worrying for the Tories is the apparent recovery of Tony Blair's personal popularity, and a cynic might wonder whether the polls would be much different if the Tories had stuck with Iain Duncan Smith. On this point, there is no doubt the Tories were right to dump IDS. One dreads to imagine how much worse the current polls would have been if Mr Howard had not have rescued the Tories from their internecine battles of last year.

It is clear, however, that the road to eventual electoral recovery may well turn out to be longer than the time available before the next election. In retrospect, the immediate benefits of a new leader created far too heady an atmosphere among the Tories and a feel good factor which blinded them to some fundamental problems that still remain to be addressed. The terms of political trade seem, once again, to be veering back towards the political status quo. The nightmare is that the recent reality check provided by the council, and European, elections might plunge backbench opinion back to the previous state of gloom, followed by inevitable temptations to panic and engage in further bouts of internal squabbles.

Fortunately, Mr Howard has no rival to worry about. It was clear before the last election that William Hague was likely to lose, and so his final months, before the 2001 general election, were overshadowed by only one topic of conversation: the subsequent leadership election. By comparison, all Tories have finally given up their favourite sport of leadership speculation.

Mr Howard also has the general goodwill of the overwhelming majority of party supporters in the constituencies who now feel energised to get back out on the streets. One of the most dramatic recoveries at grass roots level has been as a result of the recruitment of newly elected councillors both this year and during the past two years. The infantrymen and women of a political party in constituencies where there is currently no Tory MP are councillors basking in their own recent successes. By contrast, Labour will suffer as a consequence of disgruntled, defeated councillors who blame Mr Blair for their electoral humiliation.

But in just a fortnight's time, the headline news in the by-election constituencies of Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill is likely to cause as much of a headache for Mr Howard as for Mr Blair. Such by-elections would have been a disappointment for Margaret Thatcher if her resurgent Tories did not win them. Indeed, the outgoing MP for Hodge Hill, Terry Davis, was actually defeated by the Tories when he first stood for this constituency (then known as Stechford) in a by-election in 1977. This time, however, it looks as if the Lib Dems will be the main beneficiaries of any Labour upset - aspiring to repeat their triumph in Brent East last year by leapfrogging from third place ahead of the Tories.

Mr Howard has taken a big risk by placing the public services, rather than tax cuts, at the centre of the Tory message. That he has won the argument on choice in health and education is not in doubt. Labour may think he is fighting on their ground. Actually, they are fighting on his ground - but that is the Tories' problem. In spite of the lack of trust in Mr Blair, voters still trust Labour on public services more than the Tories. And if they can get positive Tory buzzwords such as "choice", "value for money", "standards" and "quality" tripping from the lips of Labour ministers without the scary implications of the Tory negative buzzwords like "charges" and "passports", they will be tempted to think they are getting the nice Tory bits delivered by the seemingly more caring Labour Party. I can see Mr Blair's soundbite at last week's Prime Minister's Questions summarised during the election campaign on billboards across Britain as "Labour's right to choose versus the Tories' right to charge".

At the moment, however, Mr Howard is clearly driving both parties' policy agenda. But his message still needs refining into the simplicity which made the 1979 manifesto so attractive for ex-Labour, first-time new Tory voters. The right to buy council houses, lower taxes and trade union reform could be distilled into a simple message by the thickest candidate (like me) to the thickest voter in Scunthorpe. To fathom current Tory policies requires a level of aptitude on the part of candidates, canvassers and voters alike that suggests inertia and apathy will once again be the likeliest winners - handing Mr Blair his third term.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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