How the Tories lost touch with their own

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LET'S start by marking the bounds of common decency. Whatever the background to the Caithness suicide, there needs to be time, reflection and a little reticence before we all merrily embroil this tragedy in the Back to Basics argument. There needs to be - but there won't be. And we cannot blame media prurience for noticing the more general, obvious truth: the Tories are in deep trouble on morality.

Their morality problem divides people into two camps. There are those who hold the sophisticated, or French, view, which abhors public moralising, reckons a minister's private life is his own business and regards all beady-eyed ladies from Haverhill as a public nuisance. This camp, which claims most commentators and politicians, may accept that the Government got what it deserved for being preachy, but feels that is where the matter ought to end. One man, two women, old story. So what?

Then there are those who hold the moralising, or Suffolk view, the people who believe in shame, who call 'public decency' what the sophisticates call English hypocrisy. These moralists can hardly avoid regarding the Tim Yeo affair, and all those before and still to come, as symptoms of political and public degeneracy.

And they are, on this occasion. What rang bells with the Yeo affair was less his sexual behaviour than his astonishing political behaviour once his affair became known: his bare-facedness, his ignorance of his own people, his utter lack of understanding or shame.

The Yeo affair doesn't matter as a tale of fornication, or even hypocrisy. It matters because it reflects the loss of an essential political sense - the sense of how a large part of the country reacts - and John Major shows himself as culpable of this as Mr Yeo. The falling out between the MP and his constituency party echoes, in its way, the Budget tax increases, the imposition of VAT on fuel, and other policies or scandals that surprise Official London only because they seem to surprise the rest of the nation.

It is serious stuff, this, for the Conservatives. Until recently they could claim to be miles ahead of the other parties in the size and cohesion of their national base. Metropolitan opinion might snigger at the boot-faced bachelors and judgmental ladies of Tory England, on parade at party conference once a year. But, by God, they were there, present, unavoidable, busily active, locally connected.

The Tories have never been what you'd call democratic, but the party outside Parliament exercised real informal influence. This gave its politicians a certain unquestionable authority, whatever their personal failings. These were people who stood on the shoulders of a million-strong organisation and were approved by it. The Tories prided themselves on not having the rule-book accountability of Labour. They didn't need it. Almost all Conservative MPs, left or right, wanted to keep in with their local party less because they were frightened of losing activists' help than because the party represented the views of many thousands more Tory voters. Keep in with the party, understand it, and you were covering your patch.

But perhaps this can no longer be taken for granted. First, the size of the party has shrunk numerically by half in only a few years. Political blunders such as the poll tax, combined with the divisive effects of Margaret Thatcher's fall, then the recession, and perhaps a lessening in Middle England's fear of Labour, have all led to a haemorrhaging of Tory activists.

Second, some of the activists still active seem to be less quiescent than they were, and more inclined to behave like activists in other parties - challenging the local member, causing trouble at conference season, even bandying about such Bennite concepts as 'reselection'. The turmoil inside the party at all levels during the Maastricht saga was partly evidence of this new activism. This, plus the decline in the Tory vote throughout Britain, may raise questions about how representative local Conservative associations are of potential Tory voters. Still, for the time being, they are a lot better than nothing.

Third comes the well-documented effect of 14 years of continuous power on the party leadership during which senior Tories have learnt to test their instincts more against the wits of civil servants than the common sense of local Tory citizens. Ministers who lose touch with their local supporters are condemned to keep making mistakes about how their natural voters think, what they will tolerate and what they will applaud. The political rhetoric fails to connect. Other sources of advice - super-cerebral think-tank wonks, newspaper editors whose idea of populism is hailing a taxi, or frigidly loyal bureaucrats - ensure that the out-of- touch ministers sound more ludicrous, not less.

Above all, it seems, it is impossible to retain your dignity if you have lost touch with your own people. As a public figure, you are reduced. Political leaders from the golden age of British democracy gained a sort of moral grandeur from their position as representatives of great forces in society, whether it be Joe Chamberlain and working-class Tory imperialism, Lloyd George and the rising lower-middle classes, or Ernie Bevin and the union movement. Whatever their failings - sexual, rhetorical, imaginative - they had an authority that transcended the personal.

In a more atomised, confused society, today's politicians lack all that. They must earn their authority by legislation that works, by words that connect. For a long time Tory politicians have enjoyed a big advantage over those of other parties in speaking for and with a national movement that has been larger, more self-confident and more widely spread than its rivals. That advantage is slipping away. Up to now, I have been working on the assumption that whatever storms lay ahead, the Conservatives were by far the most likely winners of the next election. That assumption is starting to look pretty dubious: the expression of glazed bafflement on Tim Yeo's face shows why.

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