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Dead? No, the Tory tiger is still a dangerous beast

The nation's mean streak
I came to gloat. To wander around the battlefield and survey the routed rabble, defeat etched on their shamed faces. There they were, the dazed old generals, bizarrely arrayed against the pink, swirling backdrop - Mawhinney's scowling brows, Howard's demented, fixed grin. "A Fresh Future," says the podium slogan - but "fresh" is one of those leaden words, like "hilarious", that suggests the opposite: stale, very stale old faces. Ah, the pleasure of it.

Up gets young Hague. Now is the time, he says, to get up off our knees. Now is the time to stop apologising. Sorry? Did I miss something? Who apologised? John Major did, just, pausing for the "no, no"s from the floor, who knew he really blamed those he'd dubbed "bastards", sitting behind him. No one I talked to has changed their own personal position - not one jot or tittle; they are locked in warfare still. No one says "I was wrong; my views were wrong." For this is still a party rent by schism from top to bottom. The mad fever burns as fiercely in their veins; the lesson is not yet learned; they are gripped by passionate hatred of one another. The crisis is not yet passed, and we do not know if they will die of it or live to fight another day.

I spent most of my time amongst the delegates, taking their pulse, checking their eyeballs, tapping their reflexes. Taking tea in the Palm Court of the Winter Gardens, they were mainly the old, interspersed with a few fiercely ambitious, pinstriped young men on the make.

One and all protested that Labour had stolen their clothes and now strutted preposterously in their purloined finery. "But," said one, "they're only pretending. They don't mean it. No, not even Jack Straw. It's not in their guts. They are not us - we know it, they know it, and the people of Britain will find out soon enough".

The more I talked to them, the more I saw their point. Take Mrs Nora Smith, OBE, hon vice-president of the Westmoreland and Lonsdale party, now at her 27th conference. "We are the party of the family and law and order. Respect and back to basics, religion and uniforms in schools, with good, old-fashioned discipline in the home. I spoke to a teacher the other day and I thought he was a workman, the way he dressed. The rot started under Labour in the permissive Sixties, and we've got to get a grip. Only we Conservatives really understand these things. My grandchildren understand respect - they don't say boo to a goose. They're seen and not heard, I'm glad to say." She can't understand the loss of nerve in her party. "On Europe, Cash and Gorman had a point, but they did help lose the election. I really don't know what's got into everyone. Of course we'll be back, because we stand for clear Conservative values." She's right. Labour is not wearing her clothes. She does not sound even remotely like anyone in the Labour party.

Nor does 25-year-old Philip Davies of Colne Valley, who wants to be a candidate next time. He's a customer relations adviser for Asda, and was the only Tory student at Huddersfield University. "We should never join EMU, on principle, never mind the pros and cons. We're the party of the nation state. The party must inspire British people and give them something to fight for. Law and order is our issue. Jack Straw is soft - giving prisoners back their TVs in their cells. I'd bring back corporal punishment, but of course EU law won't let us. I'd keep them locked in their cells 24 hours a day. What's this rubbish about overcrowding? I'd have them three or four to a cell, and hard labour too. As for tuition fees, well, if you go to prison you get tuition free. All this is in our guts, every one of us. We're Tories. We don't need focus groups to tell us what the people think. We are the people, Labour aren't."

There was plenty more where all that came from. Populist, nationalist, "commonsense", reactionary, True Blue views. There were some radicals, too ,who want to slash welfare to ribbons, dismantle state provision of health, pensions and education, regroup and radicalise in the wilderness as Thatcher did in preparation for her 1979 victory. But mainly the Tory rank and file just rely on the good, old-fashioned, nasty, blinkered, mean-minded, selfish Tory values that have stood them in such good stead for most of this century.

Now the question is, are they right? We may dismiss all this as out-of- date nonsense, off the Richter scale, yesterday's story, a mad rump so out of kilter with these gentler times that we can forget them. On the other hand, Blair may well be right when he warns that the Tories are just sleeping.

To be sure, as their new EMU Elastoplast phrase goes, "for the foreseeable future" they are well and truly out of the game. Hague shows every sign of picking up Major's broken baton, glueing it back together and attempting to conduct the same mad Balkan orchestra. Norman Tebbit and Alan Clark gave him a splendid chance to exert a new discipline. After all, they could hardly have said more damaging or more wicked things. What do we get? Mr Hague "flatly disagrees" with them. Oh dear. Why didn't he withdraw the whip? Because 700 delegates cheered rapturously at Tebbit's speech, and he's fudging and funking like his predecessor.

However, sooner or later Hague or someone else will probably manage to get back on top of the Tory tiger and grab the reins again. What will happen if all these old True Blue values come bounding out of the jungle, reborn, in one piece? Will they find a nation that was transformed out of all recognition on 1 May? Have all those years and votes for beastliness just evaporated, in a new, compassionate, caring, giving Britain? Are Blair and Diana-ism really triumphant, for ever?

Almost certainly not. Or not yet. Most people still voraciously read the same beastly newspapers, packed full of the same beastly xenophobic views and prejudices. The Mail, Sun and Telegraph have not turned kind and generous overnight. Nor, presumably, have their readers. The beleaguered, ageing rump of a party meeting here in Blackpool may look a sorry sight now, but that doesn't mean they haven't still got their finger on the pulse of the nation's old mean streak. They are not history, or not quite yet.

Labour in power still has to prove that the country can be well run, fiscally prudent, good at social problem-solving, both adventurous and wise, both reforming and practical - and compassionate, too. It has to show that a government can be tough on inflation and crime, yet tolerant and open minded on how people choose to live their lives.

If not, then the Tory tiger will still have teeth. I came to gloat, but I came away chastened, remembering how deep and strong Tory values still are, even when the Tory party is weak. The battle to change Britain has only just begun.