Another Conservative conference has opened with the party languishing in the polls, apparently further behind than under Iain Duncan Smith. Tony Blair has now faced four Conservative leaders and it is quite possible he will face a fifth. A talking point in Bournemouth is precisely when Michael Howard would step down, immediately after an election defeat or following the referendum on the European Constitution.
This is an astonishing reverse for a political party, so shocking it ceases to shock. A party that won elections effortlessly in the 1980s now contemplates the possibility of another leadership contest in the aftermath of a third calamitous defeat. As far as the next general election is concerned, some of its extreme pessimists assume they are in a battle with the Liberal Democrats for second place, as Labour was when it faced the SDP/ Liberal Alliance in 1983 and 1987. Some go further, arguing that we are witnessing the strange death of Conservative England, similar to the disappearance of Liberal England in the early decades of the 20th century.
These pessimists - or optimists depending on your point of view - ignore several factors that will at some point bring about a recovery for the Conservatives. Their theory underestimates the Conservatives' traditional ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Even Thatcherism was partly a pragmatic response to the failures of the 1970s. Nor do the Conservatives face an alternative party on the right with a broad appeal. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Liberals were almost wiped out by the Labour Party representing a growing working class. The United Kingdom Independence Party is a single-issue party that will fade away before long, as all single-issue parties do. Members of such minority parties enjoy their brief moment in the sun when they seem more significant than they really are. Soon they return to political obscurity. In the 1980s, Labour faced a much more intimidating threat from the SDP/Liberal Alliance, a political force that included formidable former Cabinet ministers.
The assertion that Conservative England is dying would be more potent if England had become unrecognisable from the period when the Conservatives used to win elections. Yet the most powerful newspapers are still on the right and some national broadcasters are inadvertently influenced by their tone. A timid Labour Government is frightened of raising taxes or adopting a more pro-European tone. Even after seven years in power, New Labour insiders are under pressure to devise "radical" policies for the next manifesto that do not have any cost implications. On the international front, the Prime Minister formed a close relationship with a Republican President partly to prove that no Conservative would outdo his Atlanticist zeal.
As they flail around in opposition, the Conservatives still wield huge influence. If they had opposed the war against Iraq, I suspect that Mr Blair would have been much warier of supporting the conflict with such passionate enthusiasm. Conversely, if the Conservatives had supported the Euro Mr Blair might have dared to hold a referendum. Meanwhile, the tensions at the top of the Government relate partly to the degree that ministers should pay homage to their Thatcherite inheritance. The Tories should be preening themselves rather than falling apart. Even in their decline they constrain and influence the actions of a Prime Minister who was brought up politically in the late 1970s and 1980s when he faced a triumphant Conservative Party.
That is part of the Conservatives' problem now. They are not very good at opposition. Having spent 18 years in power they are not used to the techniques of opposing a government. The reverse is also true. After 18 years in opposition, the Labour Government is still learning how to rule. In the Conservatives' case the scale of their two election defeats in 1997 and 2001 heightens their problems. Some of their big political personalities lost their seats, while others gave up, exhausted and demoralised, all political ambition spent.
Those that remain active fall for every political trick devised by Tony Blair. In his recent book, the former adviser to Mr Blair, Derek Scott, confirms that policies are devised in Government partly to wrong-foot the Conservatives, pushing them further to the right. At some point Mr Blair's determined triangulation, a superficial form of policy-making, will cause a crisis for the centre left, but for now the Tories are the ones who are wrong-footed, moving further to the right whenever the Prime Minister clicks his fingers.
After seven years of fruitless opposition they should realise that this does not work, striding assertively to the margins. When he first became leader Mr Howard worried ministers as he reached out to the broader electorate. Mr Blair relaxed when the Conservative leader appeared to follow the same route as the one taken by his predecessor but one, William Hague. It was Mr Hague who in his early days donned a baseball cap and visited Notting Hill Carnival, symbols of a new approach. When the polls did not move in his favour he panicked, got a crew-cut, swung to the right and lost the election by a landslide.
Senior ministers and Liberal Democrats regard Mr Howard's recent reshuffle as a defining moment. John Bercow, a leading moderniser, was sacked. John Redwood was brought back. Mr Bercow made a fleeting appearance in Bournemouth yesterday, speaking at a fringe meeting in which he argued that the Conservative Party should at least match Labour's spending commitments on international development. Mr Bercow is not in fashion in the Bournemouth conference, but his views resonate elsewhere. Some senior Liberal Democrats and Labour politicians have recently expressed their admiration for him.
Evidently, Conservative activists are more worried by the rise of UKIP than the threat posed by Labour or the Liberal Democrats. At yesterday's packed Independent fringe meeting the rise of UKIP was raised more than any other issue. The newest recruit to the Shadow Cabinet, John Redwood, got the biggest cheer by suggesting that Britain would be on the margins of the EU under a Conservative government. The former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was less evangelical, arguing it would take a "long time" for a Tory government to renegotiate all the existing EU treaties. Europe is tormenting the Conservatives once more, only this time it is a relatively new political party rather than divisions within their ranks that is troubling them. Indeed, just as the Conservatives more or less unite over their impractical European policies, another party comes along threatening to split their vote.
The Conservatives still face a less daunting task than the one undertaken by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. British politics, or English politics, will never be defined by a battle between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, two parties on the centre left. Conservative England is alive and kicking. All it lacks is a vibrant party to represent it.Reuse content