Power without respect palls for the Tories

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SOMETHING odd is going on in the Conservative Party. Granted, this may not have been the most glorious of weeks for this ancient ruling institution. But the despair and pessimism among many of its brightest backbenchers and ministers is out of all proportion to any conventional assessment of the state of parties. They are powerful; but they seem, somehow, self-doubting in their power.

As they trudge round the Commons after canvassing in the local elections, right-wing ministers, 'One Nation' warhorses and Thatcherite members of the class of '92 are mouthing the same message: it's all over; we are doomed to lose the next general election; we'll be out of power for a decade. A typical comment, which I have heard in several variants, was: 'I used to pity people like Gerald Kaufman and Roy Hattersley, wasting the best years of their lives in utterly futile opposition. Now I think I'm going to face the same fate.'

These are all politically astute and serious politicians, not natural panickers. They have heard a lot of hostility and have been genuinely shocked by it. Big deal.

The central factors that favour the Tories - the economic cycle, demographic and geographical shifts, the new electoral boundaries and, above all, the split Opposition - remain as powerful as ever. The despair of senior Labour politicians is just as acute as that of the Tory pessimists, and more logical. Yes, the European civil war inside the Conservative movement is debilitating. But even so, it is far more likely than not that John Major will win a fifth victory.

So why this Tory angst, this despairing introspection, this deep, dark weariness?

Perhaps it is really about the ageing of the Tory movement, which has left its rebellious Thatcherite youth behind and finds itself in stolid, virtually unchallenged possession of power. Glad confident morning no more? Instead, the dullness of middle-aged success, encased in a staid legislature?

After all, on the big issues of the day, from Europe to monetary policy to foreign policy, there are no substantial gaps between the front benches. Dissent is banished to the fringes of parties. As one cabinet minister put it this week, Parliament has ceased to be a genuine mirror of the nation in all its turbulent variety. It has become the placid senate of the middle-of-the-road and the comfortably-off. Labour, struggling to regain the respect of Middle England, has lost its angry edge. Faced by the terrible prospect of a semi-permanent Tory ascendancy, its leaders feel they have no choice but to follow.

Rightly, perhaps, from their point of view. But the result is that all those excluded from power, wealth or influence no longer look automatically to the Commons or to conventional political parties for redress. They express their anger or fear through single-issue campaigns, which do not seek to rule the country and therefore have fewer scruples in pursuing one narrow interest. 'Opposition' finds itself increasingly in such groups, from the mainstream to the extreme; in the media; and internalised, in the unfocused anger of individuals. This is bad news, for these kinds of opposition are futile compared to parties. And not only futile; the quality of their opposition is lower. Parties that seek to become governments must weigh competing interests. They suggest impractical remedies at their peril. They must be, or aspire to be, responsible. The rest of us - animal rights campaigners, environmentalists, journalists, satirists, peers, whatever - are under no such constraints. Compared to a big political party seeking power, we are, we must be, irresponsible. We jab government. Quite often, we influence it, though not always for the better. But we cannot aspire to it.

Something quite deep has gone wrong with the system. Instead of society's battle-lines being drawn on the floor of the Commons, they now appear between the governing class - above all the Tory hierarchy, but Parliament, too - and the governed.

A truly Conservative party would be terrified by such a development. It would be seeking to reopen Parliament to the discontented. (But in practice, that would mean reform of the voting system, which this government will not contemplate.) It would be rebuilding local democracy. (But again, that would mean handing over powers. And power held for a long period makes the powerful timid.)

Now it may seem, on this morning of all mornings, a curious thing to be talking about the problems of a too-powerful government. It may seem downright perverse to turn straight from the gloom of rattled Tory MPs to the rot of single-party government. But these are the big realities, as our political system rigidifies. And alert Tories have noticed them, as well as everyone else.

They know something is wrong. Many of them hope it is Mr Major who has gone wrong, since he can at least be replaced. But the trouble is deeper-rooted, and some know it. Hearing their pessimism, you almost wonder if they do not yearn to be defeated and to shake off the ageing burden of power without respect.

Did any of them, as they paced from hostile doorstep to hostile doorstep, recall Samuel Johnson? 'A Tory does not wish to give more real power to Government; but that Government should have more reverence.' Did they reflect that they were soliciting votes for a centralising government with a hard hold on power but lacking popular affection? Despite this week, the Tories are likely to be in power for a long time. But it may feel more like a sentence than a reward.

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