Election `97 `Don't fight Labour on the constitution'

The former minister Tristan Garel-Jones on the way ahead and the desirability of skipping a generation in choosing the new Conservative leader
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The Independent Online
Do the Tories really have to spend, as Labour did, 18 years - 18 long years - in opposition? Do we really have to live through our very own Michael Foot, and Neil Kinnock period too. Must we be purged by defeat again and again and again? I think not..

The Conservatives in 1997 leave government with the country on a sound footing. Labour in 1979, by contrast, left a nation divided and needed 18 years to jettison socialism. But we are all conservatives now so we need waste no time on mea culpas.

The first priority for the Conservatives will be party organisation. Over the past 10 years, I watched with growing foreboding as the effects of New Labour's grip on the party took effect. Geoff Hoon, Tessa Jowell, Stephen Byers contrasted uncomfortably with the bias on the Tory side for eccentrics, and brave British bulldogs who found it increasingly difficult to waddle up the steps of political reality.

The Voluntary Party - the National Union - must be prepared to cede some of its autonomy where candidate selection is concerned. But let it be said, at once, that the voluntary party have been the real conservative heroes of this campaign. They have every reason to feel let down by the Parliamentary Party. While many of my erstwhile colleagues were behaving like ferrets in a sack, they never wavered. The voluntary party must vote for the leader and for policy. In a word, the Tory Party must democratise.

Three issues will loom very large in the coming months: devolution, reform of Parliament and Europe; and they each provide a real opportunity for the Tories. A party with no seats either in Wales or in Scotland must now consider what is the best way of preserving the Union. The status quo in which most of us strongly believe has been comprehensively rejected by our fellow citizens in both the Celtic nations. We must now consider seriously whether a measure of real devolution is not the best way to bury separatism for ever.

The Labour government has a mandate to reform the House of Lords. Out and out opposition will lay the party open to ridicule and contempt. The Tory instinct would be to build on what exists, to recognise that the second chamber has made a significant contribution to Parliament and to seek to find a way of making its membership more relevant.

The new leader of the Opposition will be fortunate in finding two men in place ideally suited to handle these great affairs - Robert Cranborne, who has been Leader of the House of Lords, and Alastair Goodlad, the Tory Chief Whip in the Commons. Both are proper Tories in the old sense of the word. No appeasers, but men of business.

The Government, too, would be well advised to have a quiet cocktail with them. How much better for the nation if these two great constitutional measures could go through Parliament with a substantial degree of all- party support rather than the tiresome, time-consuming ritual of trench warfare.

And the message to the country too would be positive both for the Government and for the Opposition. Old Labour lost all the important intellectual arguments over 14 years. Here are two issues where New Labour could convincingly claim to have won. The Conservative opposition, by co-operation, would almost certainly achieve more than they could hope for against a majority of 179. More importantly they would send a clear message to the country that they are serious about regaining power.

The third big priority is Europe. The Goldsmith debacle has surely demonstrated that Euro-hostility leads nowhere. The Tory opposition must move quickly to establish a consensus about actual membership of the European Union. There is nothing shameful about that.

There is, after all, a consensus about Britain's membership of Nato, the UN and a host of other international organisations which does not prevent sharp disagreements about our conduct within them.

True, the EU reaches (or seeks to reach) parts of our national entrails no other international body aspires to. But once the party turns its back on the prospect of becoming the anti-European party, once it declines to convert Europe into a sort of Tory CND, then we can get down to pursuing a Conservative agenda for the European Union. There is plenty of red meat for Tories in Europe, but we shall never get our teeth into it if we declare ourselves to be vegetarians.

All of this calls for a leader of the Opposition with courage and vision. There are plenty of such candidates. I hope I am not being unduly optimistic in my belief that the Michael Foot option (John Redwood) will make no serious headway in the parliamentary party. I myself would have probably voted for one of the Kinnock options available, but the parliamentary party may prefer to go the whole hog and jump a generation. The Conservative Party owes it to the country and to itself to make the Tories electable again. But there is no need for "New Conservative", as there was for New Labour.

Behind the partisan battle, the election was conducted in an atmosphere that demonstrated a nation that begins to be - in John Major's phrase - "at ease with itself", as were the civilised exchanges between the two leaders at its conclusion. John Major's phrase was much derided by the chattering classes at the time, but like much of what he achieved, it is quietly coming to pass. And that is the atmosphere in which the Tories must rebuild - for they are its creators.