Here we go again - the Conservatives are putting on their annual summer show

As a climactic joke, the sparring Tories declare their leader has united the party and turned it into a disciplined force
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The Conservatives are putting on their annual summer entertainment. The cast remains the same and the themes of the dark comedy are familiar, but the performers do not seem to lose their zeal. Michael Portillo hints the Conservatives have made a big error in not choosing Ken Clarke as their leader. Mr Portillo also refuses to rule out leaving the party altogether after the next election. Lord Tebbit insists that the party should move further to the right, none of this pussy-footing around in what he takes to be the centre ground. The frontbencher Alan Duncan says tax cuts should not be a priority. Another frontbencher Tim Collins insists tax cuts are precisely what the party should be all about.

The Conservatives are putting on their annual summer entertainment. The cast remains the same and the themes of the dark comedy are familiar, but the performers do not seem to lose their zeal. Michael Portillo hints the Conservatives have made a big error in not choosing Ken Clarke as their leader. Mr Portillo also refuses to rule out leaving the party altogether after the next election. Lord Tebbit insists that the party should move further to the right, none of this pussy-footing around in what he takes to be the centre ground. The frontbencher Alan Duncan says tax cuts should not be a priority. Another frontbencher Tim Collins insists tax cuts are precisely what the party should be all about.

The International Development spokesman, John Bercow, argues with good cause that his party should match Labour's spending commitments on aid. Oliver Letwin decrees that, apart from health and education, his frontbench team should pledge cuts in their departmental budgets, although this decree apparently no longer applies to the Home Office, defence and resources to fight terrorism. As a climactic joke, the one that brings the house down, all these sparring Tories declare that Michael Howard has united the party and turned it into a disciplined fighting force.

In some ways, the Tory party is now less disciplined than Labour was in the run-up to the 1983 election under the leadership of Michael Foot. In the nine months leading up to Labour's calamitous defeat, the warring factions rallied around Mr Foot. For a time, Tony Benn and Denis Healey almost pretended to agree with each other. There was a brief lull in the battle to define the Labour Party. In contrast, with less than a year to go before the likely date of the next election, the Conservatives are frantically seeking definition once more, and disagreeing over what they should all be looking for.

The immediate spur for these latest outpourings of agonised introspection is Mr Howard's poor Commons performance on the Butler report and the Conservatives' grim results in recent by-elections. On one level, the two traumatic events are connected. In the debate on Butler, Mr Howard was neutered by his party's support for the war against Iraq. From the moment the Conservative leadership spoke up in favour of the war with an unqualified enthusiasm, it lost the chance to make headway if the conflict went wrong. For the same reason, the voters are not turning to the Conservatives to make their protests in by-elections. They realise that while Mr Blair took us to war, the Conservatives would have taken us there even more quickly.

At one point in Anthony Seldon's revelatory biography on Tony Blair, the author flourishes a secret memo written by the Prime Minister during his summer holiday in 2002. It contained the prime ministerial objectives for the rest of the second term. In policy terms, the memo was rather vague, but strategically the words were ruthlessly clear. The challenge was "to force the Tories out to the right".

The use of that particular infinitive is revealing. Mr Blair seeks to give the Conservatives no choice in the matter. He will move on to their terrain. They will be forced out to the right. Part of new Labour's broader aspiration is to kill off the Tories as a political force. It does so by acquiring quite a few of the Conservatives' policies and positions, and therefore "forcing" the party away from electoral credibility.

Mr Blair will have calculated that his support for the war gave the Tories no political space. Only if he had opposed the war would the Tories have been able to compare their bold Atlanticism with his cowardly Europeanism. Mr Blair never gives up fertile political space. Instead, the Tories fell into the trap of backing the war even more avidly than the Government. Mr Blair's memo should be sent around to all those prominent Conservatives calling on Mr Howard to march further to the right. This is precisely what Mr Blair wants them to do. Indeed, this is what they have done with disastrous consequences in response to most Labour policies since 1997.

Mr Brown's early stringent spending plans were described by the Conservatives as "reckless and irresponsible", implying they would be even less generous to ailing public services. When David Blunkett fills up our prisons, the Conservatives pledge to cram even more offenders into cells. When Mr Blair becomes a pragmatic European, Mr Howard pledges to renegotiate every EU treaty. When Mr Brown announces modest spending increases, Mr Letwin promises swingeing cuts. Never has an opposition party danced more compliantly to the tunes of a prime minister.

Yet the Conservatives are not being forced to the right. They choose to move there of their own volition. Mr Blair sets them traps. It is up to them whether or not they walk into them. Mr Howard told his MPs at a private meeting last week that he planned now to focus on crime and asylum, a sign perhaps that he is about to do a William Hague and move further to the right. Yet there is an alternative path open to the Conservatives, a subtler one. Most fundamentally, they need to recognise how far they are from a clearly defined sense of purpose. During the last parliament, the Conservative frontbencher Alan Duncan observed in an interview with me that "we are still looking for an encore to Thatcherism". Mr Duncan was sacked for his candour, but he was right. Indeed, his words still apply.

In a search for a fresh voice they need to call Mr Blair's bluff. Whenever the Prime Minister moves to the right, they should congratulate him and take a bow declaring that, although they have lost two elections, their ideas and policies are still being espoused by a Labour prime minister.

As Messrs Portillo, Duncan and Bercow have argued astutely, there is no gain for the Conservatives entering elections pledged to cuts in spending. It places them on the defensive, explaining where the axe will fall at a time when some public services are finally starting to improve. Instead, they should commit themselves to spending the same amount of money more effectively.

As a constructive alternative to unpopular subsidies for private operations and private schools, the Tories should explore cautiously ways of introducing selective co-payments. For example, they could permit GPs to open at weekends for a fee from most patients. On Europe, they should oppose the unpopular constitution, but become a pro-European party, seeking alliances in the EU and within Britain for reforms without pledging to renegotiate every treaty. Some of this would surprise Mr Blair, wrong foot him even.

It is too late for the next election. Indeed, Mr Blair will probably pen another memo in the Caribbean next month, declaring that one objective from his earlier holiday document has been met. He has successfully forced the Tories further to the right. He will miss the summer entertainment back in Britain, but will probably quietly smile in the sunshine.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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