United by power lust Ungoverned power lust

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The Independent Online
IF, OVER the next few weeks, Michael Portillo or Michael Heseltine or even, by some dreadful mischance, John Redwood were to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he would do so with the support of less than 10 per cent of the population. We know this because local elections and by-elections, as well as opinion polls, tell us that Tory ratings remain well below 30 per cent. At least half of these residual loyalists are likely to prefer the Prime Minister they have; another quarter probably have a strong preference for the Tory left or right. There is no evidence that even Mr Heseltine would add more than a few percentage points to the total Tory vote. The nation is sick of these Tories, sick of their squabbles, sick of the pathetic way they cling to power.

This creates a preposterous situation for a modern democracy and one that must be almost incomprehensible to foreigners. The electoral system gives us an unrepresentative Parliament; the constitution provides wholly inadequate checks on executive power and patronage; 16 years of Conservative rule have created the most over-centralised state in Western Europe. Yet, on top of all this, MPs of the governing party choose to conduct their affairs as though they were members of a private club, plotting to overthrow the honorary secretary. Most of them will not even pay us the compliment of telling the truth. If they bother to give a straight answer to a straight question about how they intend to vote, it will very probably be a lie and one that may be perpetuated even after the leadership election. What does this say about the supposed accountability of MPs to their constituents? It is not even certain that, under Britain's apology for a constitution, the Government is entitled to carry on at all. In 1992, Mr Major was invited to form an administration because he was leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. He has now resigned that position. Logic suggests that he should also resign as Prime Minister, that no other Conservative could form a government, that the Queen would then send for Tony Blair as leader of the next largest party and that he would advise her to call a general election. If this is not constitutionally correct, it ought to be, because it would discourage governing parties from playing political games when they should be running the country. The conventional Westminster wisdom is that voters dislike general elections. There is no support for this whatever - a Mori poll last week showed that 61 per cent want an immediate election. The truth is that politicians dislike elections because, for a brief interval, they have to stop patronising us, explain themselves properly and risk the sack. They much prefer their private fun in the Westminster corridors, which reduces the rest of us to a role similar to that of the citizens of Peking, who used to scrutinise wall-posters for clues as to the intentions of their rulers.

The Tory antics might be forgivable if the leadership contest showed the slightest sign of turning into serious political debate. There is a deep split in the Tory party, not only over Europe but over the very future of government and whether it has any role beyond providing the minimal public services of defence, policing, justice and, possibly, health. But such is the lust for power that even Mr Redwood plays safe and declines to deploy his supposedly mighty brain on any substantial political proposition. To say that you will pay for tax cuts by reducing "waste" is simply to evade the question, rather as Labour politicians used to evade questions about how they would pay for higher pensions and better hospitals by promising more "economic growth". To offer the salvation of the royal yacht as part of your election manifesto is to suggest that you ran out of ideas before you started.

The Conservative Party, in Andrew Marr's vivid phrase, is like a colony of ants having a nervous breakdown. It is no longer fit to govern because, being riven by faction and intrigue, it has lost any common purpose. All that unites it is the desire to stay in power, to hold on to those seats to the last possible moment in the hope that some miracle will save it from five years in the wilderness. There is not the smallest prospect of an immediate general election; grouse do not vote for an early shooting season. But that should not diminish our sense of outrage at our exclusion from events that may determine all our futures. Britain deserves better; even the Conservative Party can do better.