John Rentoul: Why have the 'nasty party' got it in for their 'nastiest piece of work'?

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The Independent Online

The Conservatives should be afraid. Very afraid. The Prime Minister was almost skittish at his news conference on Thursday. Did he look exhausted, humiliated, chastened? Did the journalists sense blood and go for the kill? No. It turned out to be as challenging an engagement as cutting the ribbon on a new nursery - sorry, I mean, a new wraparound educare facility. The media pundits had solemnly informed the nation on 6 May that there was only one question facing the re-elected Tony Blair: when will you go? Yet when the delegates of the fourth estate gathered under the chandeliers at 10 Downing Street, only one of them asked the question. Adam Boulton of Sky wanted to know if he still intended to serve a "full third term". Blair batted it aside effortlessly. "I have got nothing to add," he said.

The Conservatives should be afraid. Very afraid. The Prime Minister was almost skittish at his news conference on Thursday. Did he look exhausted, humiliated, chastened? Did the journalists sense blood and go for the kill? No. It turned out to be as challenging an engagement as cutting the ribbon on a new nursery - sorry, I mean, a new wraparound educare facility. The media pundits had solemnly informed the nation on 6 May that there was only one question facing the re-elected Tony Blair: when will you go? Yet when the delegates of the fourth estate gathered under the chandeliers at 10 Downing Street, only one of them asked the question. Adam Boulton of Sky wanted to know if he still intended to serve a "full third term". Blair batted it aside effortlessly. "I have got nothing to add," he said.

He had opened the news conference with a statement about "respect", by which he meant not George Galloway's party but the diversionary tactic. It is what Blair's polling adviser Philip Gould calls a "nodalong" theme, because it gets people in focus groups nodding in agreement. "People ain't got no respect" is a classic example, and Blair's use of it a brilliant device. It enables him to say that he is listening to the British people, but instead of hearing what the media think he should be hearing, i.e. get lost, he hears an altogether less threatening message.

Surprisingly, the big beasts of the media jungle, Boulton excepted, took the bait and asked softly sceptical questions about whether governments could legislate for politeness. But the high point of Blair's insolence was a mini-lecture on the analysis that the press should be writing of the politics of this parliament. It was vintage Blair: elegantly simple, apparently honest and cleverly self-serving. Because New Labour is in the centre ground, he said, "We have vulnerabilities to the left of us and to the right of us" - to the right on issues such as tax and immigration, and to the left on Iraq, tuition fees and public service reform. It is with simplicities such as these that he has dominated British politics for the past 11 years. What is extraordinary is the extent to which the other parties go along with his game. The Conservatives, despite a determined attempt to shift the substance of policy to the centre ground by matching Labour's spending plans on the NHS and schools, actually fought the election from the right. The Liberal Democrats, despite their ambition to replace the Tories as the main opposition, fought from the left. As a result they lost a net three seats to the Tories and made fewer gains than expected from Labour. The bookies made most money on election night from gamblers who overestimated the Lib Dem seats total.

So far, the post-election debate in both opposition parties seems to be entirely on Blair's terms. The Liberal Democrat argument is rumbling but has hardly got going yet: it is the Tory leadership contest that will keep us educated, informed and entertained until Christmas. That, too, is framed in terms of modernisers versus traditionalists - labels that are not only borrowed from Labour but that serve Labour's purposes. Michael Howard's parting gift as leader has been to try to fix the election in favour of the mods. He promoted George Osborne and David Cameron, the 30-something standard bearers of the moderniser cause, and appointed Francis Maude party chairman, in charge of drawing up the rules of the leadership contest. Maude is not a leadership contender, but he is an ideologue of modernisation. And the modernisers are right about many things. A party that loses an election has to tell the people that they were right, it was wrong, and that it will change. Elections are fought on the centre ground; the emphasis on immigration this time, as with the anti-Europeanism last time, was a mistake.

Beyond that, however, their argument becomes confused. Howard's manoeuvring is apparently designed to frustrate the chances of the favourite to succeed him, David Davis. But Davis is no simple trad. When I worked at the New Statesman in the mid-1980s, he was one of the few Tory MPs who took an interest in revisionist left-wing thinking on "workfare" - requiring the unemployed to work for their benefits. As the Government whip responsible for getting the Maastricht Treaty through the Commons, he is no fundamentalist anti-European. And more recently as shadow home secretary, he did precisely what the modernisers wanted, adopting a position on control orders in the Prevention of Terrorism Act that was to the liberal side of the Government.

The real objection to Davis seems to be that he is a bit of a loner, that his judgement is erratic and that he comes across as aggressive. One of the new Tory MPs is said to have told him last week, "You'll never be leader and you want to know why? You're a nasty piece of work." No doubt sharing the Prime Minister's regrets about the collapse of deference, I am told that Davis responded: "I may be a nasty piece of work, but I get things done." The test for him in the six-month beauty contest will be whether he can use his right-wing reputation to surprise people with a new centrist programme. The test for the party is whether it can resolve the confusion that lay behind its programme at the last two elections. It could not decide whether it was a tax-cutting party or a public spending party and managed to offer the worst of both worlds. I would have thought that "traditional values in a modern setting", as a Tory John Prescott would put it, should mean something like trumpeting the flat-tax revolution that is supposedly sweeping America and central Europe.

It seems to me that the modernisers have a more serious problem, however, which is that the analogy with the Labour Party's modernisation is fundamentally false. New Labour was the product of powerful forces. It was a reaction to Thatcherism and its defining moment was 10 June 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with a majority of 144. The shock of that disaster transformed attitudes throughout the party. Although it took time for the consequences to work through, the party was then run by people who were prepared to do almost anything to defeat the she-devil, and its members were willing to let them do it.

The Conservative Party is simply not in a comparable position. Neither its members nor its leaders regard Tony Blair as an evil threat to the nation. On the contrary, many of them rather admire him. They think he showed courage in joining the invasion of Iraq, and they approve of his social conservatism, including his demand for more "respect". That is why the Tory modernisers cannot trust their party membership to vote for the most effective anti-Labour candidate in a leadership election.

I do not pretend to have the answers to the Conservative Party's problems. But I know that there is one person who they should not be listening to, and that is Tony Blair.

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