The New Tories: busy striking a pose

John Major's enemies within are adopting populist ideas, inspired by Empress-philosopher Margaret
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The Independent Online
Are we seeing the birth of a New Conservative Party? There is an agenda, an intellectual history, various leaders, quite a lot of followers. This party would be vigorously anti-state and anti-welfare, nationalistic in its rhetoric and staunchly opposed to British entanglements in European politics.

Something, at any rate, is crawling from the rubble of the Major administration; something angry and yearning for a fight; something which looks across the water to America and envies the raw simplicity of the Republican backlash; something already in opposition but which now yearns to slough off the tedious responsibilities of office and proudly Be Itself.

Its Empress-philosopher Margaret, who is currently in the book-selling trade, denies that she wants the Tory party to lose the election, though her interventions against John Major must make that outcome even likelier. She says she is trying to alert the party before it is too late to the betrayal of her purpose; but her words sound more like an early explanation for the Tory defeat of 1997.

Her hair apparent, Michael Portillo, helpfully raises the possibility of leaving the European Union unless it mends its ways. He praises Norman Lamont, his formal leader's sworn enemy, widely expected to stand against Major in a leadership contest in November. The Times, equally helpfully, urges the Prime Minister to throw out his Foreign Secretary and knee his Chancellor firmly in the groin.

The mood of the New Conservatives, as I judge it, is this. They have a radical plan which Major might adopt and which, if he did adopt it, might save the next election. But they don't really expect him to listen to them and their thinking is more focused on reshaping the Conservative Party after the defeat they think he is leading them towards.

The radical plan is that Major finally comes out as a fully-fledged Europhobe and commits himself against a single currency, while slashing back the welfare state and trying to buy the favour of house-buyers and other key Tory groups. This is the burden of Lady Thatcher's intervention, and can be glimpsed in speeches and writing from across the Tory right.

As it happens, Major is indeed wary of a single currency to the point of hostility. But he has said so often that to rule it out would be against the national interest, that for him to do so now would seem pathetic. He would be eating so many fibrously chewy words that his credibility would surely gag on the feast and expire, purple-faced, on the floor of the House of Commons. The New Conservatives know it; and they could cope.

As for the rest of the agenda, it is more oppositionist than governmental. Where are the Thatcherites in office urging the closure of whole departments, the withdrawal of benefits and the sacking of thousands of their civil servants? If it was easy to do what Lady Thatcher finds it so gloriously easy to propose, then she would have done it then; and Peter Lilley would be doing it now.

She inveighs against the dependency culture and the deficit, but favours higher spending on law and order and on mortgage interest tax relief and the married man's tax allowance, the latter two cut by the Major government in an attempt to try to cut the deficit. This is the sort of double-think Conservative Central Office used to mock the Labour Party for.

The only thing the New Conservatives seem to have stopped attacking Major for is the Irish peace process. Inconveniently for the revisionists, it has not yet ended in disaster. Had there been an explosion or too, you can be sure the ''outrage'' of the Adams handshake would have featured prominently in the Thatcher interviews.

About 90 per cent of what the New Conservatives are about today is mere populist posturing, rotten with deceit and inconsistency. It is for ''one day''. They have no intention of trying it in government now.

Meanwhile, history is being briskly, even frenetically rewritten. We are invited to believe that higher taxes did not follow from the recession, itself created by the over-expansion of the economy in the Eighties. Boom was Thatcher; bust is Major; and the two things (this crazy argument asks us to think) are unconnected. Misery in the housing market is treated as if it were something imposed on the people by Major, something unrelated to the Lawson-Thatcher house-price boom. How thin. How tacky.

The real world is more complicated. I'm not saying that there isn't a coherent and respectable case against the size of the state, nor that these New Conservatives don't have strong arguments about federalism. What is incoherent and unrespectable is the suggestion that these issues can be translated into election-winning formulae in the near future.

The ambiguity over the European Union is a good example. The possibility of leaving is teasingly dangled. But then the danglers flinch away again. We are meant to bear it half in mind, but only half - to enjoy the tingling emotion of the notion, but without enduring the mental pain of taking it fully seriously.

Maastricht was less invasive than the 1986 Single European Act, which Thatcher signed; yet Major is savaged for signing and she is acquitted. On what grounds? As she told the Daily Telegraph, she had fought for "certain protections" in the single market, ''which are not being honoured. They're like that and I know it now, but I didn't know until after I'd left office.''

THEY? Oh, yes. Them. The Other. In which case, there's not much point in carrying on with the slippery and deceitful THEM, is there? Thus thoughtful scepticism about bureaucracy and political union degenerates at the gentlest probing into xenophobic cheap shots. And yet we know that if by some strange magic Margaret Thatcher could be returned to power she would deal, because she would have to, with the inter-governmental conference; and with the Irish peace process; and with the social security budget.

Across the board, the New Conservative backlash is incompatible with government. It breaks too radically with the record; it strikes populist postures which the same people have been unable to implement or sustain in power. In those respects, it is politically unserious.

It is bitterly resented by the Majorites. The Prime Minister's thoughts about the craziness of the house price boom, and the lack of attention given to manufacturing in the Eighties, have filtered out, as have his private reflections on Margaret Thatcher's selective memory when it comes to Europe. But just as his enemies pretend that he is responsible for everything, so he tends to underplay his own complicity in her mistakes. She passes the buck; he lobs it straight back.

We thought we had elected an administration in 1992. Instead we have had a long recrimination - a party which couldn't be fully in control because it was having a nervous breakdown at the time. My instinct is that the Tories will be defeated and will come out of that considerably further to the right. They will be considerably more ''Thatcherite'' than they ever were in her day. The gleam in the eye of the Empress isn't just delusion.

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