The New Toryism as preached by Michael Portillo

Language and politics

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You wonder why the Tories bother. In the very week that they come forward with the revolutionary proposal that their candidate for the Mayor of London be selected by a vote of all party members in the capital, Peter Stringfellow, the famous nightclub owner, announces his candidature. Offered the choice between 24-hour lap dancing and, say, living in a Jeffrey Archer novel, what do you think the capital's citizens will choose? No contest. Get your flares out: clubbing may be compulsory in Stringfellow's London.

Still, the decision to offer the party's members a say in this and other big decisions - not least electing the leader - must be causing some furrowed brows down at the Carlton Club, which has carried the torch for Tory traditionalists for centuries. William Hague, when not honeymooning or boogying on down in Notting Hill, has had little to say about policy; having nailed the issue of Europe down, he is busy reconstructing the Tory house. He is evidently following the sound advice of those Tories who pleaded for a period of silence after the election. No one really wants to hear much from a party that is unlikely to be able affect the price of cheese this side of the millennium.

But specific policies are not all. What a party feels like is at certain stages far more important. Organisation matters; but the stuff you pour into the bottle - the party's culture - is what voters respond to. New Labour's leaders' choice of language - tough, conservative - should have warned us all that they would not behave like Labour governments of the 1970s, ready to blow with the wind of popular sentiment. Indeed, as some of my friends in the arts world discovered this week, this Government positively delights in demonstrating its robustness in the face of old- style appeals not to abandon the needs of a civilised society. "Civilisation", Treasury ministers seem to be saying, "is what you can pay for; now, stop whingeing." The Tories have to find their "feel" too.

The letter from the Tory grandees to this newspaper, quarrelling with Mr Hague's suppression of debate on Europe, was the wrong feel. It made them look like men locked in a war that the rest of the world had forgotten. It is true that Europe divided the Conservative Party, and that perception played a part in their defeat. However, it was not simply the fact of the division, but that it was over an issue that most of the British public feel is done and dusted. Sooner or later we will join; that's the fact of our life in the global economy, and the timing and detail is for our politicians to work out. The argument is over.

For some Tories, though, this was the assembly of the great One-Nation tradition, represented most eye-catchingly by the signature of Chris Patten. He is still a brooding presence on the Christian Democratic wing of the party, said to be just waiting for Hague to stumble. But his involvement here, plus his improbable interest in running London, are signs of an uneasy spirit, worried about being forgotten, yet unsure about how to find his way back to the limelight. He does not represent the future of the Tories; but if not him, then who?

Thus far, there is no flavour of New Toryism emerging from Hague's own kitchen. But there is a tantalising odour of something exotic wafting our way from Enfield. Mr Michael Portillo has been back to the larder and has been rummaging around to see what ingredients he can offer to entice the missing millions. In his speech this week, he brought out the old staple, opposition to any progress towards European integration; but he wrapped it in some new phrases, dealing with Britain's place in a global economy.

Where Labour may begin to seem grimly defensive on the international stage, Portillo is beginning to paint a picture of the UK as a centre of global trading, open to all, and able to span the world unencumbered by any regional attachments. On welfare, he astounded many by his speech at the last party conference, appealing for Tories to be understanding and humane; welfare mothers could be safer in his world. Even the Portillo groupies, such as the journalist Simon Heffer, are being driven to wonder aloud if they are truly hearing these words from the master's voice.

But Portillo has never been a simple proposition. He is not a pantomime Tory villain - family background, his age, his intellect all separate him from the old Tory right. Now, freed from the factions that kept his party riven, he is able to imagine a new culture for his party.

The Tory party, so long yoked to the old Powellite obsession with English values, could become as internationalist as it was in the nineteenth century (in its imperialist mode); it could be the champion of relaxed libertarian values against a government that too often gives off a whiff of puritan self-righteousness; it could be the party that stands up for the rights of the individual in the face of Labour's tendency towards grim corporatism. Remember, in the 1960s, it was the Tories who were the fun party; they could be so again. In their final years of government, they may have appeared to be enjoying themselves a little too much at the expense of others; but the nation, as we approach the millennium, is ready to hang loose and have a good time - and laughing along is a luxury oppositions have that governments don't always enjoy.

I know that some of you felt I myself should have been more relaxed over the John Motson affair. However, the BBC has sent me the text of a full apology for the incident issued by Motty. It is indeed full and unreserved. However, in mitigation, he points out that he does not only have problems with blacks; he now finds it difficult to identify the Italian player Gianfranco Zola because of his new haircut. Personally, I'm prepared to leave the whole affair at a yellow card; but for the commentator's sake, I just hope that Mr Zola's barber is not offended; after all he might just be from Sicily, and the traditional Sicilian response to personal slights leaves the average Vinnie Jones tackle looking like a love bite.

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