Leading Article: Divided they stand; can they conquer?

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The Independent Online
IT IS difficult to conclude after a week in Bournemouth that the Conservative Party is in fine condition. The Tories are well behind in the polls and look tired and confused. They also face a Labour leader capable of converting his party's advantage into a general election victory. But it would be wrong to think the Conservatives have left the seaside with all hope abandoned.

Most important for the party, senior figures have at last ceased their plotting to oust John Major. It is now evident that, barring unexpected disasters, Mr Major will lead his party into the next general election. This explains the more relaxed, self-confident tone of his speech yesterday. It was no barnstormer, more a deliberately sober address aimed at showing competence and reliability. Mr Major also knows that with the economy growing at nearly 4 per cent a year, he is accumulating the flexibility to cut taxes at the most opportune moment. No one should think Labour has the election in the bag.

Yet nothing can disguise the fact that Mr Major's party is suffering from a deep- seated malaise. The Tories are divided and they sound weary. Where in the Eighties the party was full of intellectual vigour, today it is subdued and uncertain. Thatcherism imbued the Tories with a sense of identity and direction, but that sense of purpose has been lost.

Reading between the lines, two main responses were on offer in Bournemouth. The first was fundamentalist: the logic of Thatcherism should be pursued, onwards and upwards. The only reason for the present difficulties, it was argued, was that the party has strayed from the true faith. Believers contend that if the party reduces taxes, gets more plausibly tough on law and order and becomes more firmly anti-European, voters will respond. The alternative position was pragmatic: the party should head for the centre, smooth its ideological edges, and compete for the middle ground with Tony Blair. On the conference floor and on the podium, neither gained the upper hand; hence the sense of confusion.

John Major habitually straddles the two positions, though yesterday he stood solidly on the centre ground. His speech struck a conservative, anti-radical note. Schools and the armed forces were promised an end to years of upheaval. He forsook the language of market forces in the public sector, warmly recalling the support that the NHS gave his parents. Consolidation was his theme. This was plain John Major, reaching for his soap box, speaking directly to the public over the heads of his party.

It went down well with the conference and perhaps Mr Major will now persist with it. If he does, he will be sidestepping, rather than engaging with, the internal debate within the party, which focuses around one issue and one issue alone: Europe. It seemed for much of the time in Bournemouth that the emotions and energy of most delegates was wrapped up in this issue, with the Euro-sceptics very much in the ascendant. The mood was reminiscent of Labour conferences in the early Eighties: full of passion, energy and excitement, but out of touch with the concerns of the public outside.

The case for the pro-Europeans did not go unmade, but most of its key spokesmen, such as Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine, are in the twilight of their political careers, while the new generation tends to Euro-scepticism.

Observing his party, divided over an issue that is of only limited concern to the public, Mr Major's position is not wholly unlike that of Mr Blair. At the end of the party conference season, each is firmly ensconced as leader, but both parties have serious internal problems that could yet prove fatal to their electoral chances. Careful diplomacy and skilful tactics might in either case prevent splits and bring advantage. Both leaders are seeking direct rapport with the electorate; both know that divided parties seldom win elections. We are in for a serious contest.