Thunder that drowned the liberal voice

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WHAT HAS happened, please, to the libertarian right? Among those who voted for the legalisation of homosexuality at 16 there were just three parliamentarians associated with the radical liberal wing of the Tory party. The radicals who spent the Eighties arguing that the state should keep out of people's lives weren't in that lobby.

Although it is perfectly possible to be an economic liberal and a moral conservative, a truly anti- statist politician would have had no difficulty in discerning what was properly a public matter and what was a private one. A few might have been expected to fall off because of constituency pressure. But, in a free vote, out of all those No Turning Backers, all those sassy young radicals . . . just three? (They were Bernard Jenkin, Andrew MacKay and Alan Duncan.)

This may seem a rather minor event in the context of the Government's position as a whole. But it ought to provoke some significant questions about the political balance of the Tory party of the mid- Nineties, and in particular the status of the right. The libertarians, though never dominant, were a powerful component of the Thatcherite coalition. Their anti-statism and enthusiasm for personal freedom was philosophically influential and pretty popular among some sections of the electorate, particularly younger voters. Has it died out?

Most Tory MPs I have discussed it with point to the change in the political climate during the nervous, more moralistic mood of the Nineties. Whether this is the backwash of recession, or a more fundamental shift against the individualism of the previous regime, the change is palpable. Not only is there such a thing as society, but the task of sustaining and nourishing society exercises Tories who were rampant libertarians a decade earlier.

So what remains of the distinctively right-wing agenda? The privatisation programme is mostly over. What is left is likely to be unpopular. The deregulation campaign is a big issue, though the Cabinet's nervousness has produced legislation rather less impressive than the rhetoric promised.

The unbundling of the central government bureaucracy is also a serious programme, though this is championed by the Tory left as well as the right. Some ministers, particularly Peter Lilley at the DSS, are pursuing radical agendas, though mostly long-term and in privacy. On tax and spending, the right's aspirations remain as strong as ever - but they are mocked and made irrelevant by the current reality.

In the wider world, though, the right is seen to be interested in one issue only: Europe. This is undeniably important. But just now, this is an electoral dead-end. The Maastricht battle was lost. The current, coded arguments about the Tory European manifesto and the constitutional future of the European Union before 1996 are of interest to the committed, not to the voters.

What remains of the right's agenda, and is heard clearly, is the style of the Eighties - the finger- stabbing, divisive rhetoric that some in the Government think still wins hearts and minds. Rhetorical style may seem a small thing. But think of the claimant-bashing speeches from the last two Conservative conferences, and their painful echoes around the country.

Now let us put this in context. We are observing a tired Tory government that has endured a terrible 22 months, perhaps the worst in post-war Conservative history, but which has up to three years left - in terms of voters' memories, a lifetime. With the Ulster Unionists, who are not going to provoke an election which Labour looks like winning, the Government not only has time, but a perfectly good majority. Above all, it can hope for economic recovery. In principle, there is absolutely no reason why it should not go on to win a good election victory in 1996-7.

In practice, one can all too easily find Tories who think they are heading for a 1906-style electoral slaughter, and for one central reason: the party is deeply split and the Prime Minister is unwilling to lead it on behalf of one faction or the other. The conclusion is obvious and, for readers of this column, perhaps familiar: unless the factionalism is ended, the Conservatives are doomed to squander time, recovery and majority in the years ahead.

But if Mr Major looked closely at the thin agenda and unpopular obsessions of the right, he would surely take the argument a stage further and resolve to lead the party from the centre-left, which anyway is where his personal centre of gravity lies. He has spent three years placating the right in order to preserve party unity. As a result, he has a party which is bitterly split and which has been spending an unconscionable amount of time and mental energy on policies that baffle and bore the electorate.

All of which is bad enough. But the worst of it is that the tone has been wrong. Mr Major was chosen, then elected, as a break from the Wagnerian thunder and dry-ice of Thatcherism. Subsequently, not least in his 'back to basics' speech, he has tried to emphasise this change, talking about tolerance, understanding, ordinary values. Yet the right, lacking a popular programme, but full of abrasive rhetoric, has been allowed to drown out that still, small voice.

And that, you may think, is a long way to come from a vote on homosexual law reform. Let me end, then, with the justification given by one of the liberal left-wing Tories, Tristan Garel-Jones, for his vote for 16. He had, he told the Commons, no problem with 'back to basics' policies on education, law or defence. 'Another Tory instinct is as basic as any of those - the instinct of decency and common sense. That instinct has prevented our party from ever allowing any group, class or section of the community to have hatred directed against it . . . It is to that best instinct of the Conservative party that I appeal tonight . . .'