Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Tories suffer 'one more heave' disease - when what they need are shock policies

Thursday 02 April 2009 21:03

"We must measure the Labour government against the same benchmarks which the electorate will use: principally, the economy, health and education," said the internal Conservative Party report. It was written in 1999. But the party has yet to act on it.

"We must measure the Labour government against the same benchmarks which the electorate will use: principally, the economy, health and education," said the internal Conservative Party report. It was written in 1999. But the party has yet to act on it.

After the 2001 general election, sensible Tories admitted that they had spent too much time preaching to their core vote, on issues such as Europe and asylum, and not enough reaching out to floating voters. Now the same arguments resurface. Michael Howard played the immigration card, but it repelled as many as it attracted.

The mood at Westminster in the past week has been odd. When Mr Howard greeted his new MPs, it looked like a wedding. When Tony Blair worked a room full of his party's new recruits, the mood was much more sober. It was almost as though Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and John Prescott weren't celebrating Labour's victory but mourning those MPs who didn't return from the election battlefront.

As I have written here before, momentum is everything in politics. And the Tories undoubtedly have more of it than Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Mr Howard deserves credit for dragging his pulverised party back into the ring almost singlehandedly.

Yet talking to Tory MPs this week, I have detected symptoms of a dangerous political disease: "one more heave" syndrome. In other words, if we just carry on as we are, we'll win next time.

The Tories benefited more from a protest vote against Mr Blair than a positive vote for themselves. In about half the 31 seats they gained from Labour, they were helped by a rise in the Liberal Democrat vote. Since 1997, Labour's share of the vote has dropped by eight percentage points, while the Tories' share has gone up by less than two points. At this rate, they will reach the 43 per cent they need to win in 2061.

The Daily Mail can be a successful newspaper by appealing to the three or four million people who want to turn the clock back to a better yesterday. But the Conservatives can't be a successful party on that basis.

At this election, Labour had a six-point lead among women. The Tories won 40 per cent of the votes of the over-50s but only 25 per cent of the under-25s. In the top AB social group, the Tories had a lead of nine points. In 1992, the last time they won, they were 31 points ahead.

Yet there are worrying signs that the penny just hasn't dropped. Mr Howard wants a "grand debate" about the party's future but was wrong to shoot down the MPs John Bercow and Ian Taylor for speaking some home truths. Bizarrely, Jonathan Marland, chairman of the party's treasurers, said the debate should be conducted "behind closed doors".

The Tories lost because they did not convince enough voters they had changed. What better way to start than by having a frank debate in public?

After the 1997 election, Tory officials advised that the party needed some "10,000-volt shocks" - counter-intuitive and symbolic changes that would grab people's attention, as Labour did by ditching Clause IV. We're still waiting for the first sparks.

The Tories could scrap their traditional commitment to tax cuts to recognise that people prefer decent local public services. They could admit that people were right to elect Labour in 1997 instead of implying they made a mistake. Just as Mr Blair accepted key planks of the Thatcher revolution, the Tories could embrace a new, post-1997 consensus and stop nitpicking over public service reforms. They could stop equating family policy with marriage and adopt family-friendly policies with enthusiasm.

Tory modernisers should win the argument but do not have a strong leadership candidate. They are splitting several ways after an aborted attempt this week to unite behind Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary. Some modernisers are tempted by David Davis, the early front-runner, who is on the right but seen as the only runner with the "X factor" to appeal to the electorate.

His enemies will mount a big campaign to stop him. In their leadership contests, the Tories often vote AGAINST someone. They got John Major to stop Michael Heseltine, William Hague to stop Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith to stop Michael Portillo. Now, conceivably, they might get Sir Malcolm Rifkind or Liam Fox to stop Mr Davis. It is an eerie reminder of the Tories' wider problem: the voters know what they are against, but not what they are for.

Remarkably, many Tories still act as though they are the natural party of government. They used to think that Mr Blair's 1997 landslide was an aberration. They finally accept he has colonised the centre ground by being a conservative Prime Minister. Now they long for Gordon Brown to take over. As one of the leadership contenders told me: "I can't wait to see the back of Blair. Brown is a very different animal. Once he's in charge, Labour will revert to type."

Yet there is no way that Mr Brown would abandon the centre ground. If he had succeeded Mr Blair last year, he would have pitched his tent firmly on it. He is already thinking about how to win back the voters Labour lost this time, and will be well-placed to do so.

At the 1993 Labour conference, two shadow cabinet ministers were appalled by what they called the "one more heave" approach of John Smith, the party leader. One was Mr Blair. The other was Mr Brown.

If the Tories think all they need is a few cosmetic policy changes and the elevation of Mr Brown, they are deluding themselves. And they will pay a heavy price.

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