The political vacuum at the heart of the Tory party

The Conservatives' unforgivable failure is to loathe without giving us anything to love
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The Independent Online

The computer engineer who lives up the Cowley Road in Oxford is an educated young man from the subcontinent. He vehemently agrees with Michael Howard's proposition that immigration must be limited. "No country can have unlimited immigration!" he says indignantly. But the likelihood of him voting Conservative is less than zero. How can the Tories have all the facts on their side, all the arguments on their side, the agreement of their enemies and still lose the argument?

The computer engineer who lives up the Cowley Road in Oxford is an educated young man from the subcontinent. He vehemently agrees with Michael Howard's proposition that immigration must be limited. "No country can have unlimited immigration!" he says indignantly. But the likelihood of him voting Conservative is less than zero. How can the Tories have all the facts on their side, all the arguments on their side, the agreement of their enemies and still lose the argument?

This is a failure of historic proportions. Not since the last general election have the Tories failed so thoroughly to carry public opinion. But why is that? We can look to the Prime Minister for the answer.

Tony Blair's judgement on the Tories is impeccable. His view, expressed at his manifesto launch, is that the Tories are stuck where Labour was in the 1980s, in some pre-Kinnock twilight zone, where the undead fret. The party cannot unite, he said, because they haven't really made their decision about tax, spending and public services. They haven't decided what a Conservative Britain should look like.

It's true they're a mess, and it's not surprising they are. They are as much a creation of Mr Blair as of their own strategists. They have agreed to match Labour spending on schools and hospitals but only because the Prime Minister made them. They abide by the diktats of what they call "political correctness" but their hearts aren't in it. Put the words "disabled access" next to "gender rights" and "outreach" and "regional regeneration" and watch a Tory MP's face freeze.

This loathing wouldn't matter - a fair chunk of voters share it. The party's unforgivable failure is to loathe without giving us anything to love. If you haven't proposed a coherent, inclusive vision of a Conservative country, you can't denounce the active state - not without offending disabled people, single mothers, public servants, beneficiaries, ethnic minorities, sexual eccentrics and Liverpool.

So the Tories are bound by the "new settlement" or the "progressive consensus" or whatever Tony Blair is calling this accumulation of sectional interests, but they hate it, instinctively and philosophically.

They hate it so much they can't think about it. They certainly haven't thought it through to the extent of being able to summarise their philosophy in one of those aphorisms we voters like. When I asked a Tory candidate last week for a compelling slogan, something I could say in a pub that would make me proud to be a Conservative, he was extremely unhelpful. "I can't give you a slogan," he said grandly, "But I can tell you what I believe." Per-lease don't do that, I begged him most earnestly.

Labour say they "govern for the many, not the few". If it's rubbish - and I'm not saying it is - it is first-class rubbish. It encapsulates a left-of-centre attitude with clarity and conciseness. Tony Blair says: "We achieve more together than we do alone." That is not a vacuous statement. It is the understructure to a call for higher taxation and greater public spending.

Where is the Tory equivalent? When Mrs Thatcher said at a party conference, "Let our children grow tall and those who have it in them grow taller still", Tory tears welled up in eyes all over the country. All Tories believe that, and so do quite a lot of people who aren't.

Michael Howard hasn't anything of that quality to say because his party hasn't done the work. They haven't identified the Tory values that could inspire the country. They haven't made the moral case for lower taxation. They haven't explained what they'll do with the hopeless and the helpless. They haven't shown how people will live longer under their governing ideas. As a result it still isn't respectable to be a Conservative.

There is a deep strategic error at bottom. They tacitly agree with much of what Tony Blair stands for (choice, reform, the tax burden, public spending) but they hate him so much they can never praise the Tory things he's done. Had they been offering qualified approval over the past eight years for sticking to Ken Clarke's spending limits, for Bank of England independence, for private sector involvement in public services - things would be different. We'd know what a Conservative Britain would look like. No wonder the brand lacks clarity - they want to reduce public spending so they're increasing it; they instinctively approve of university top-up fees and freedom for successful hospitals, but they publicly denounce them.

And who knows? The largeness of mind and generosity of spirit that praising your opponent requires - that might have persuaded the voters that Tories were fair-minded, even-handed, respectable people, full of common sense and a spirit of justice who spoke in the national interest.

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