If they don't lose the next one, they're done for

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The Independent Online
WHAT you have to understand about the last election is that the Tories did not expect to win it,' said the old man opposite me.

We had been chatting desultorily about this and that, as stray companions on the last train home are wont to do. Judging from the fact that everyone but us was clutching an expensive theatre programme we were the only two people on the train who weren't returning, vaguely dissatisfied, from the West End.

This bond had drawn us together. We mentioned politics. I said that the British were not interested in politics, only in party politics. He nodded and said: 'What you have to understand about the last election is that the Tories did not expect to win it,' which is where we came in.

'I am sure you are right,' I said. 'The polls showing a Labour victory, and all that.'

'And what is more,' said my companion, leaning forward, 'the Tories did not want to win.'

'But . . .' I said feebly. 'But politicians always want to win.'

The man smiled. 'I was around Westminster on election night. The place was full of Tory MPs, groaning, holding their heads and saying: 'Oh no, oh no, we've won, what a nightmare, Jesus, no . . .' '

'Tell me more,' I said.

'Work it out for yourself. The Tories had spent 13 years getting the country in a mess. The last thing they wanted was the job of clearing it up. That's why they planned to lose the election.'

'How did they plan that?'

'They threw away their trump card, Mrs Thatcher. They elected as a leader a man who had no hope of winning. They tried to make themselves as unpopular as possible by pushing the poll tax, the business rate, Maastricht and all the other things the public hates. They then sat back and waited for Labour to romp home.'

'But Labour didn't romp home. Why not?'

'Superior tactics. Labour had their own, rather better, plans for losing, centred on tax rises, NHS scandals and so on. Too late in the day they realised that in Neil Kinnock they had a leader who really did want to win, and came as near as a whisker to doing it, so as soon as was decently possible they ditched him and brought in a man who looked as if he could lose properly next time. Bryan Gould had the smell of a winner about him, so of course he had no chance. The only party that allows itself the luxury of a real leader, Paddy Ashdown, is a party that knows it cannot win under any circumstances.'

I sat, stunned. Politics suddenly looked a little different.

'So what are Tory tactics now?'

'Oh, they are rebuilding.'

'For what?'

'For the next election. They know they mustn't blow it this time. Another spell in office would ruin what credibility they have left. If they don't lose, they are done for as a political force.'

'How are they trying to make sure of losing?'

'Oh, by keeping Norman Lamont in office as long as possible. By keeping John Major as leader as long as possible. By nailing their colours to the Maastricht treaty and the Council Tax, and so on. But they are worried.'

'They don't look worried.'

'Well, they are worried. They are worried stiff that if the British public haven't noticed yet what a mess they make of things, they may never notice. They are worried, too, that Labour may go on proving to be even better at losing elections than the Tories are.'

'Have they got any trump cards?'

'Just the one. The Tory party has been desperately in debt, virtually bankrupt, for years. They intend to give a broad hint to the electorate that it doesn't make sense to elect a bankrupt party. If the electorate ignores this, and re- elects the Tories . . .'

'Yes . . ?'

'. . . the Tory party intends to go into receivership to avoid having to rule again. Like so many of the businesses which voted for them. Poetic, really . . .'

I must have drifted off. When I woke up the man had gone.