The Tories' New Look: How will we draw the dividing lines if we're all liberals now?

Click to follow
So after all the years of rumours and whisperings Michael Portillo has finally come out. As a liberal. Tired of playing RoboPortillo, wrapping himself in the Union jack and castigating single mothers and foreigners he has come over positively fluffy. Tolerance is his new creed, and the new user-friendly, TV-presenting Portillo is tolerant of sexual indiscretions by those in public life, tolerant of unions and tolerant of those who have children without getting married. Gee thanks Michael, I'm touched guv'nor, I really am. It is not surprising that Portillo should be one of the first Tories out of this particular closet. After the shock of defeat by an openly gay candidate had registered, he was one of the first Conservatives to admit what a disaster the election had been.

Portillo is not alone in this. William Hague has been making his own peculiar overtures to parts of the community that Tory policies have so far failed to refresh. His desperately casual appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival and his message to gay pride earlier this year signalled a willingness to try and appeal to new constituencies. The basic problem that Hague has in trying to revivify the Tory Party is that while some like Tony Banks may say he looks very young, he acts as if he is very old. This must be why the lovely Ffion is wheeled out at every occasion as if she was the real leader of the Tory party who just happened to have an unfortunate taste in men.

All this frantic re-positioning begs many questions not just for the Tories but for those on the Left too. It makes sense, and indeed seems the only viable option, for the Tories to regroup ideologically around a libertarian position. They can lay claim to it historically and yet also if they are clever, present it as entirely modern, in keeping with the anti-statist and minimal government model favoured by many.

In theory, such a position is one way of drawing a clear blue line between themselves and Blair's sometimes hectoring and patronising government. In practice, however, a genuine libertarian position would appal many of the Tory rank and file who find it hard to accept women as equals, never mind gay rights or the de-criminalisation of hard drugs. Tebbits jibe at "those who advocate sodomite marriage" is a sign of how far there is to go . The true libertarian must be able to say to Tebbit that not only "sodomite marriage "is permissible, but so is adoption by gay couples with both recognised as legal parents. A libertarian position on drugs would not advocate their use but consider their consumption to be an entirely private matter. Abortion too would be seen as a personal matter.

While the sea of grey haired heads nodding off at Blackpool would have a hard time swallowing such social liberalism , the rest of us might wonder if such a transformation would destroy any meaningful divide between right wing and left wing thinking. Those already uncomfortable at Jack Straw's refusal to contemplate the decriminalisation of cannabis, and who cannot stand the direly sensible pronouncements on food and alcohol and smoking by New Labour, may find solace in a party that treats us as grown ups capable of making our own decisions. The end of ideology if it means anything, means that as the two parties vie to be the most effective managers of the free market, politics moves out of the public arena and invades the private sphere more and more, with those at the bottom of society experiencing more and more state intervention than those at the top.

The current Labour party is liberal -ish, rather than libertarian, emphasising its toughness at every available opportunity. "The liberal Left views the family as repressive and wants the state to legislate for equality and `alternative" lifestyles'." The Daily Telegraph warns us, again mistaking this government for the liberal left. Tony Blair has fallen over himself promoting the family as the bedrock of stable communities. The Labour Party has pulled back from positive discrimination. It sat tight during the Criminal Justice Bill, so the news that it legislates on behalf of "alternative lifestyles" is something of a shock.

It has so far been good on gay rights, but such "tolerance" which costs nothing financially suits an administration that has promised not to spend any more money than the Tories. All of this means that is becoming more and more difficult to define liberal and illiberal positions in the traditional way.

When someone who has been called a "right-wing harpie" like Ann Leslie can write in the Daily Mail that she "finds herself slightly to the left of New Labour", then as she says herself, "anything can happen". If both parties are the parties of low taxation; if both parties promise to reinstate local government; if both parties proclaim that they are welcoming to everyone whether they are gay or black or even female, then the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Some might see this as the inevitable Americanisation of politics, with both parties competing for the centre vote. Others might point out, as Polly Toynbee did this week, that whatever Tories say, there is not a liberal bone in their body politic. They cannot even begin to become a more modern, more inclusive party until they do something about their terrible lack of women MPs, yet because they cannot accept the idea of structural inequality, they cannot even consider a quota system. That would really be thinking the unthinkable instead of allowing their sad old men to say the unsayable at fringe meetings.

Yet we should not be complacent. Tebbits remarks on mutli-culturalism were roundly rebuked but naturally reprinted all over place. While we know he is wrong, the so-called liberal left has its own problems with multi-culturalism which it pays lip service to while whipping its own children out of schools where they make actually experience some of it.

What we are really witnessing is the rusty machinery of the Tory party cranking itself up for an era of cultural and moral relativism. Maybe we don't want our politicians to be as absolute and as certain as they once were. When Labour is all humility and giving, and the Tories suddenly all tolerance and compassion, it's a wonder they could bring themselves to opposes each other in the first place. My feeling however is that as we increasingly expect our politicians to make small rather than grand promises, to deliver a little rather than a lot, we are ultimately asking for them to be less powerful. That strikes me as the one properly liberal position, that neither left nor right has a lot of time for.