Leading Article: Fighting friends on Tory beaches

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The Independent Online
WHO would have thought that the Tories - who gave us Winston Churchill - could so misjudge the country's mood about war? A party that once rallied the nation to fight the enemy on the beaches finds itself in combat instead with its own veterans. Likewise with crime. The law and order party, once such a deft manipulator of the British appetite for retribution, has lost its touch. Voters, as our opinion poll indicates today, no longer trust the Conservatives to protect their property or person. Worse still, they feel their wallets are unsafe from the taxes and recession. The Tory reputation for financial prudence is in danger of being frittered away.

Something profound appears to be happening to the Conservatives when they are defeated by the Opposition even on their home ground. They seem to have lost their feel for the people - and their nerve. Has the past year damaged them as the Winter of Discontent hurt their opponents in 1978-79? Labour was stuck for over a decade with images of strikes, economic failure and political impotence. The burning question now is whether U-turns and mismanagement will similarly cast the Tories as incompetent, untrustworthy and unable to control events. Thus the inheritance of Thatcherism, which tied the party to economic growth and individualistic success, would have been squandered.

The polls have never looked quite as bad for the Tories as they do now. For more than a year support has been becalmed at below 30 per cent, worse than in the 1981 recession or the slump over the poll tax. Months of falling unemployment, interest rates cuts and low inflation have not vitiated their demise. Meanwhile, Tory alibis for failure grow less credible as each year passes. Ministers can no longer blame Britain's ills on wicked Labour governments. Nor will raising the spectre of John Smith as prime minister scare many people, as today's poll shows. The electorate seems quicker than ever to see through false or hypocritical claims.

Yet the Tory capacity to win against the odds cannot be underestimated. Labour should ponder that its opponents, for all the blundering, may have yet to do themselves mortal damage. A more adept leader, who restored the authority of Downing Street and did not needlessly fight unnecessary battles over matters such as D-Day and 'back to basics', might rally the wavering. Though no popular heir is apparent from today's poll, Labour would be foolish to rely on John Major being leader next time around.

Furthermore, the four and a half years of recovery that will have taken place by the time of the next general election should restore Tory economic authority and temper the electorate's current anger and sense of financial insecurity. In 1992 Labour politicians fooled themselves into believing that recession would hand them power. They were wrong. Next time the political and economic cycles will be back in harmony. Labour analysts appear to comfort themselves with the belief that a robust economy in 1996-97 will give voters confidence to change governments. The truth is that Labour must still earn the respect it lacked in 1992. Today's opinion poll shows that voters have little more faith in Labour over taxes and the economy than they do in the Government.

The lesson for the Opposition must be taken from the success of Tony Blair's policy of 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. The commonsense and intellectual rigour of his proposals - still too rare in Labour thinking - explains not only why the Tories have been squarely beaten in this area, but also why his programme is so popular. The same cannot be said for Labour policies on the economy, health, education and the welfare state. They remain vague and half thought out, simply not good enough to change those voters whom time has turned into habitual Tories at general elections.

On past record, the crassness of the Conservative government over the past year may yet estrange voters. But Labour has much to do before it can feel sure that it has made loyal converts.