Leading Article: Signs of a new Conservatism

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THE Conservative Party conference opens today in unusual circumstances. For the first time in recent memory it is confronted by a Labour leader well able to outwit Tory strategists. The Government may have been deeply unpopular for nearly two years: months of falling unemployment, low inflation and high growth rates have failed to lift its support above 30 per cent, a lower rating than during the 1981 recession. But this problem has assumed much greater significance in the face of a fresh dilemma: what to do about Tony Blair, a leader who is fast transforming his party into an alternative government.

Labour is shaking off its association with strikes, economic failure and outdated left-wing dogma. It is taking over the centre ground of British politics that Margaret Thatcher annexed for the Tories with tax cuts, council house sales and anti-union legislation. Suddenly, it is the Tories who look lost.

Their crisis is deep-rooted. They give the impression of being intellectually and politically exhausted. Party membership has been falling fast. Revelations of 'sleazy' practices seem to characterise a party that has been in power for too long.

Two prescriptions will be on offer this week in Bournemouth to cure the party's ills. The first would shift it to the right, championing more vigorous privatisation, faster and larger tax cuts and a more sceptical attitude towards Europe. 'Clear blue water' would open up between the Tories and Labour. There is, however, a danger that such a lurch, though popular with the converted, would leave disaffected ex-Tories cold. John Major has spent two years pandering to the right. It may have saved him from defeat at the hands of parliamentary colleagues, but he has failed to recapture popular support lost since 1992.

The left of the party offers different solutions. Kenneth Clarke has been quietly singing from a hymn-sheet that would enjoy a sympathetic hearing among those still hurting from recession. Several of his speeches have amounted to Disraelian discourses on how to reconcile the sometimes brutal consequences of competition with fairness and humanitarianism. Yet, were John Major to adopt Mr Clarke's line wholesale, he would not only risk splitting his party but also risk looking like a pale imitation of New Labour.

In short, neither of the mainstream options offers Mr Major a magic way to unite his party, make it distinguishable from Labour and regain electoral favour. This week - as two contributions published on page 17 suggest - offers signs of the beginning of a debate that may eventually rescue the Tories from this dilemma.

It took 15 years for Labour to find Mr Blair, just as it took the Tories well over a decade to discover Mrs Thatcher. The developing debate in the Tory party is likely to be profound and fascinating as well as protracted.