Conservatives fight the enemy within

It isn't new Labour that stands between John Major and a fifth Tory term, it's the Tory Party itself
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The Independent Online
The world has made its mind up. The Tories are over. They are a no-future, divided, hopeless, knackered, done-rulin' shambles; not an administration of rulers, but a mal-administration of empty suits. Just about everyone says so. MPs do. Almost all newspapers do. The public, apparently, agrees: one imagines Tory pollsters going up to ministers and mumbling, like the consultant in Casualty to the tear-stained relative: ''Listen, I'm really very sorry ... ''

All of which leads one to take a deep breath, recall the months before the last election and ask: "Oh yes? Is it really over?" We are talking, after all, about the most successful electoral machine in Europe, and a government presiding over an economy that is growing relatively fast. The Conservative Party may be bad at many things but it has been superbly good at winning general elections. And that remains John Major's particular skill. And not all his little helpers and tortoiseshell-spectacled Machiavellis have deserted him, as has that affable trouble-maker, Lord McAlpine.

As before, both parties are probing the prejudices of a relatively small number of swing voters in marginal seats who will decide the election result. These are aspirational, socially conservative, provincial (fact, not sneer) and employed voters, in the Midlands, parts of the south and a slice of north-west England. Tony Blair and new Labour have become extraordinarily adept at saying what these voters want to hear. But who speaks Lingua Sierra most naturally? Mr Major and the Tories. They will have plenty to say. There is a winter and spring of economic growth still to come. There is time for voters to turn away again from new Labour.

I am not saying that the Conservatives will win the 1997 general election, if they make it that far. My guess is still that they will lose it. That has been a common view since the tax rises and ERM embarrassment which followed so swiftly on from the last election. If they carry on like this, they will not only lose but be routed, and British politics may change dramatically, reshaping itself in a way that cuts most of the people gathered at Bournemouth this week out of power for a very long time.

But ... even now, it is possible for them to win. Conservative ideas have dominated the past 20 years and have won acceptance deep in what used to be socialist parties across the world. It is often said the party has now, however, run out of ideas. But that is not self-evident.

In its proposals for a fifth-term government, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) suggests the privatisation of the Royal Mail, the Crown Estates, London Underground, the Forestry Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service. It suggests cutting the civil service by a fifth, abolishing grants for students, means-testing child benefits, spreading VAT to food, water and sewerage. The CPS is also in favour of cutting the basic rate of income tax, phasing out mortgage interest tax relief, abolishing inheritance tax, introducing a privacy bill, ending the capping of local authority budgets, selling off BBC Radios Three and Five and ... wait for it ... cutting the number of MPs by 20 per cent.

Now these may be bad ideas or good ideas, practical or impractical. But they are, undeniably, ideas. A Conservative Party arguing about them and winnowing them would have a considerable programme for government in 1997- 2002.

To recap: economic growth, ruthless electoral skill, a half-year still to go, and new Tory ideas by the bucketful - why shouldn't the Tories win again? Even Tony Blair believes it is possible, and that he hasn't got his victory safely won.

What makes the above analysis seem so strange is that I have left out one critical thing: the behaviour of the Tories themselves. I am not talking about sleaze or corruption. That, and the fixing of Parliament-as-court, is disgraceful and ought to be genuinely shocking. But it is not likely to be a central electoral issue to the silent millions who already regard politics as a dirty trade, not merely a rough old one. Major knows this, which is why he brushes aside the allegations from the Guardian/Hamilton case with such contemptuous ease.

No, the real problem for the Tories is that so many of them no longer think winning the election is the most important thing. They think Britain's attitude to Europe, generally, and to EMU, in particular, matters more. Well, they are probably right. But it is unnatural behaviour for Tories; without that central will, without that corporate self-belief, they are falling apart.

They don't hate Labour, though they regard Mr Blair as ''smarmy''. They hate one another much more. There is a split between those who think the only hope is to sack Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor, and abjure the single currency, and those, a smaller number, who think that keeping Clarke and avoiding yet more anti-Europeanism is the only chance.

The anti-Clarkeites blame him for liking the welfare state and for refusing to cut taxes drastically: the fact so many Tory voters depend on the welfare state and the impact of tax-cutting on interest rates seems to be forgotten. These people are essentially Thatcherites. But Lady Thatcher, who made her public peace with Major yesterday, was never as rash in office as her followers are now.

The pro-Clarkeites bank on slowly winning back public support for a moderate, prudent economic stance. But they are clearly in a minority and, as the polls continue to be bleak, the anti-Clarke, anti-European pressure will surely increase.

How, I wonder, are relations at the moment between Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, and Mr Clarke? Major's instinct is to reconcile, to find a middle way. But finding the compromise between sacking Clarke and not sacking him will be a little tricky, even for him.

It is hard to imagine the Tories without their divide on Europe. But if you can close your eyes and think of such a thing, then you would conclude Major had a perfectly reasonable chance of turning opinion around and winning the election. In other words, nothing stands between the Tory party and a fifth victory, but the Tory party itself.

British voters are material, down-to-earth and suspicious of high-flown stuff. That is why they have chosen the unromantic Tories so often. But if the Tories have decided they don't want to govern, even the British voter is unlikely to force them to do it.