Don't relinquish your seats too easily

The Conservatives are starting to behave like an opposition. And it is a route to long-term exile
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Even now, some on the Conservative centre-left have not grasped it. They still think that, in due course, the party is ``bound'' to come back to them. If only they hold their nerve during this curiously nationalistic period, things will return to normal.

What, though, if the Euro-scepticism and the hyper-Thatcherism they detect in the party is not peaking, but is only starting now to gather momentum? That would have jaw-dropping implications for the current political order. But this is not implausible. In fact, it is likely.

There seems to be a 20- or 30-year lag in the effect of the most charismatic Tory leaders. The politically conscious young absorb the influence of an Iain Macleod or an Enoch Powell at university or in their early twenties. Then it takes at least 10 years or so to get into Parliament. Then it takes them at least another 10 to get into government and act according to the principles formed the last time they thought seriously about politics, nearly half a lifetime earlier.

For instance, those who absorbed the liberal Toryism of Macleod in the mid-1960s are now at, or past, the height of their influence - people such as Kenneth Clarke, Nicholas Scott, Chris Patten and Douglas Hurd. So perhaps we should think of the generation of Tories who became politically active in the 1980s as the Thatcher wave. They started getting into Parliament in 1992, but more of them will arrive in 1997.

This sounds, and is, too mechanistic an approach. But the implications are reinforced by other evidence. Many of the leading centre-left Tories are fading from the scene, and cannot be expected to play much of a role in the post-1997 Parliament, if they are there at all. Others, such as Stephen Dorrell, are vulnerable to a strong anti-Tory mood and may lose their seats.

At the same time, it remains true that the current of ideas is still flowing from the Right. The extreme-sounding attitudes to welfare and taxation being tossed around by the new Republican leadership in Washington will, we can safely assume, shortly make their way to London.

Finally, there is the likelihood of a pro-European and moderate Labour government. In government, Tory nationalism and radicalism is partly compromised by having to grapple with the real world and the responsibilities of office. In opposition, would there be any holding it? Labour's commitment to Scottish home rule and reform of the Lords will provoke intense Westminster battles, during which English nationalist instincts will be allowed full rein as leaders of the Tory right thirstily vie for glory and internal support.

So for a range of reasons, it is starting to look as if the Tories' right- wing, English-nationalist tide may be only halfway in, rather than halfway out.

To many moderate Conservatives, that assertion will seem as bleak and perhaps as unlikely as it would have seemed to a White Russian to learn in 1917 that the Bolsheviks wouldn't peak until the 1970s. They are absolutely right to worry. The Conservatives are already starting to behave like an Opposition, and big business and the City are beginning to treat them like one, too. It is almost as if, despite the election result, the parties had quietly decided to switch seats.

The evidence is everywhere, from the ministerial habit of deflecting questions in the Commons on to Labour front-benchers, satirised by Tony Blair last week, to the lack of serious legislation coming forward for the year, and the unhealthy Tory obsession about what Labour would do when in office. Even mainstream Tories have been saying for some time that what the party needs is a period of rest from the cares of office, so that it can ``sort itself out''. But if this tidal theory is correct, what centre-left Tories ought to be worrying about is that a spell in opposition would make their party not more, but less electable.

This is, after all, what happened to Labour between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. To be a right-wing Opposition Tory in the late 1990s would be immensely exciting - one would have the pick of many factions and marvellous arguments about nationhood and destiny. The intellectual fizz would be remarkably fizzy.

But in these same circumstances, which are no longer unlikely, Labour would have its first real chance since the early 1960s to prove itself a calm and ordinary party of government. If it succeeded, the switch would not merely be between Tories in government and Labour in opposition. It would be much bigger. It would be between the Tories as the party of government and Labour as the party of opposition. That transformation is what Tony Blair dreams of. It is what he is praying for.

The question now is: how many Tories have lost their common sense and are secretly crouched, muttering, in the aisle alongside him?

One Tory who avoided crouching in aisles, pews or any other sanctified area was Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, deceased. Ever since I first arrived to report the Commons in 1985, well-informed Scottish Members were muttering, ``Ech well, it looks like Nicky is finally on the way out.'' It always did look so, on account of his habits, but it never was so until now, which adds to the surprise.

The point about Nicky is that he was in theory unspeakable and in practice irresistible, whereas with most Honourable Members, it is the other way about. He was Political Incorrectness personified, pickled and gift-wrapped. His views were in general as vivid and appalling as his trews.

It is hard to believe the Tories can hold on to his seat, and Nicky, looking down, would be most disappointed if they did, given his characteristically helpful comment about the poor man picked to succeed him - ``an unelectable clone''. But if the Scottish National Party wins, Nicky will be partly responsible.

At any rate, a few years back, the story was told of him how at election time, he was confronted with an SNP surge in one Perthshire village. His agent insisted he go there on a Saturday morning in person to retrieve the situation. So Nicky arrived, gloriously attired, as the good folk were going about their business. Suddenly, his party worker grabbed Nicky by the arm. "There's Mrs Macpherson,'' he said. ``She's a linchpin in the Kirk, the Mothers' Union, all that. She's at the centre of this, she's very influential and she's said to be thinking of voting Nationalist. A hundred votes may hang on her.''

Coming up the street was a formidable old woman, heavily tweeded, brogued, jowled, swinging a huge black bag, her face as welcoming as a sermon taken from Leviticus. On either side of her were two similarly tweeded and glowering women. Nicky lurched towards them, one hand outstretched. ``Hullo, ladies,'' he boomed. ``I am Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, your Conservative and Unionist Party candidate. Now then, what's all this about you voting for the fucking Nationalists?''