Tories press self-destruct

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WHEN Labour left office in 1979, it had governed for 11 of the previous 15 years. Harold Wilson's ambition to make it Britain's natural party of government had at times seemed close to realisation. Yet by the early 1980s it had disintegrated to such an extent that its very future, never mind its electability, was in doubt. Is something very similar now happening to the Conservatives, with the defection of a second MP on Friday night, the announcement by record numbers that they will not stand again, and the almost permanent rebellion of the Eurosceptic wing?

Old Labour self-destructed because the great pillars that supported it crumbled: on the one hand, the industrial working class and the vehicle of its ambitions, the trade unions; on the other, the curious jumble of Methodism, Marxism, collectivism and paternalism ("the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better", as Douglas Jay put it) that formed the party's beliefs. Now the pillars of Toryism are being undermined, too, at least partly by the Government's own actions. Instinctively conservative groups such as academics, doctors, police officers and civil servants have all had reason to resent the way the Government treats them.

This is the root of the Conservative crisis: the party now threatens far more people than Labour does. The best argument for voting Tory was always a defensive one, not just for the elite but for many ordinary people of quite modest means. The fear was that Labour would erode advantage at all levels of society, that it would expropriate property, reduce wage differentials, confiscate savings. A vote for the Tories looked like a vote for safety and it was on precisely this that Baldwin based his appeal before the Second World War. John Major, at times, tries to present himself in similar fashion. But now, to many people, the Tories seem a bigger threat than Labour, and market liberalism a far more potent force against what they hold dear than socialism. It is the Tories who tell people that they cannot expect a job for life, they who have removed large areas of employment protection, they who have presided over steeply falling house prices, they who insist that wages and salaries should depend entirely upon merit, not on traditional differentials or automatic increments. Savings, true, are no longer threatened by inflation. But they may equally well be threatened, as state benefits are run down, by the need to fund disability, old age, health-care or a period of unemployment. Indeed, to many people, Tory proposals to dismantle the welfare state themselves look like a form of expropriation, cheating them out of entitlements for which they have paid, over many years, in tax and national insurance.

The broad appeal of Toryism has always been based on fear - fear of the enemy without (Soviet communism), fear of the enemy within (trade unions). Now, with these vanquished, the party casts around more desperately: one- parent families, social security scroungers, asylum-seekers, criminals, hippies and travellers. This is what creates the harshness that so repels the likes of Emma Nicholson and Alan Howarth. From without, the European Union provides the only remaining enemy the Tories can find. But as threats to the British way of life, Belgium, Holland, Germany and the rest have none of the credibility the Soviet Union used to have. The latter was a mysterious place; most Westerners had about as much understanding of how its people lived as they did of Greenlanders. In Western Europe, by contrast, the British can travel and see for themselves that the people look more prosperous, more secure, more at peace with themselves than we do.

The Conservative Party increasingly gives the appearance almost of being embarrassed by power. Even if two more MPs were to defect, it would no doubt still win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. But to argue that the Government enjoys the confidence of a majority of MPs would be absurd; it scarcely has any confidence in itself. This newspaper argued a few weeks ago that the Prime Minister can only damage his party by delaying a general election, that, with every day that passes, the Tories merely show further evidence of their unfitness to govern and further undermine the confidence of their own supporters. Ms Nicholson's defection provides the clearest possible evidence of how right we were.