In secret, how many will vote for the Tories?

The embarrassment is now so strong that some, even to a pollster, will not admit it

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"Well," the man at the other end of the table said. "I'm going to vote for the Conservatives next time. I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm just going to vote for them."

"Well," the man at the other end of the table said. "I'm going to vote for the Conservatives next time. I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm just going to vote for them."

It was a Saturday night, a party among late thirty-somethings in liberal South London. There was a brief lull in the conversation and then, like a lot of deaf old colonels, everyone started saying: "What did he say? Did he say what I thought he said?"

"Are you serious?" someone said. "Yes, totally," he said. "I'm fed up with this lot. I'm voting for the other lot." "But you can't vote for them," a woman said, incredulously. "Why not?" he said. "Look at it like this. They're both exactly the same on immigration, as bad as each other, so there's no difference.

"But I don't believe the Tories would carry out an assault on free speech, like that stupid religious hatred thing. They wouldn't have gone to war for one reason and then told us that they'd really done it for another reason. And they wouldn't in a million years just get rid of habeas corpus like these crooks."

"But come on, they're racists," someone said. "No they're not," he said. "I don't believe that." "Of course they're racists, they're Tories," the woman said, getting an unintended laugh. "And homophobes", she went on. "Oh yes?" he said. "And there aren't any homophobes in the Glasgow Labour Party?" "Yes," I said. "There was that man, wasn't there..." "...killed himself," someone added. "Why not the Liberal Democrats?" "I'm not going to vote for someone," he said, "who I wouldn't trust to form a government." "All the same, though..."

Well, the discussion more or less petered out, with a faint feeling of bad taste. Around here, people were thinking, we don't vote for the Conservatives, because we're not that sort of people. And if someone does, then he ought to keep pretty quiet about it; particularly now that none of us can think of anything good to say about the Labour Party.

All those nice people who voted for Mr Blair know that he's let them down badly. The only thing which keeps them remotely within the fold is that they don't know anyone of their sort, they believe, who seriously announces an intention to vote for the Tories.

It's a huge problem for the Conservative Party. The legacy of the Thatcher revolution has simply been accepted; everyone silently accepts, say, that the state couldn't go on running airline companies and car plants, while often sternly maintaining that she was "a disaster for the country".

It is a kind of irrational taboo. Across much of the country, in educated company, it seems to be quite an embarrassing declaration to say that you are thinking of voting for the Conservatives. That has probably been the case now since John Smith became the leader of the Labour Party after the 1992 election. Although, of course, that is not true everywhere, it is certainly the case among the chattering classes and it is an attitude which seems to be spreading far beyond metropolitan dinner parties.

By now, it is almost impossible for anyone to say that they are going to vote Conservative without a slight effort; a consciousness that they are presenting a bold kind of challenge. To say in public that Michael Howard gets your vote is to have prepared a series of defiant responses to follow it up, about habeas corpus, Hazel Blears and the Glasgow tendency. Nobody says: "I don't know, I just sort of like them." It clearly takes a definite effort of will.

On the other hand, if you say: "Oh, I suppose it had better be Labour," everyone will sympathetically groan. Few people will say: "How can you bring yourself to vote for that lot?" The danger for the Conservatives, as it has been for some time, is that Labour has become a sort of default position, the chicken-and-chips of the electoral system. We don't like it that much; but at least our friends aren't going to laugh at us.

There might be some slight hope for the Tories in all of this. Even though opinion polls recently have shown them closing on Labour, some to within four or five percentage points, they are still consistently behind.

On the other hand, I strongly suspect that the embarrassment of declaring yourself a prospective Conservative voter is now so strong that there might be those who, even to an unknown pollster, will not admit the fact. Not many of those people, however, will carry their embarrassment into the secrecy of the polling booth. It seems quite possible, given the reaction I saw on Saturday night, that some people will go on assuring friends, families, spouses - and even the man from Mori - that Tony gets their unwilling vote, and in the end, in the privacy of the polling booth, will slyly put down a big blue tick.

Of course, that would not be a very firm mandate on which to form a government - and they are not likely to succeed this time. But as time goes on, the successful Labour tactic of demonising the Tories is going to lose its force, just as the old Tory mantras about the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent eventually did. At the moment, the government is more or less relying on the embarrassment factor; and that is not a very firm mandate, either.

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