Tories regroup

Some on the left have wildly exaggerated the chances of a split in the ranks of the preferred party of the bourgeoisie

When William Hague, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, announced his first shadow cabinet appointments, The Daily Telegraph commented that they confirmed “the ascendancy of the moderately Eurosceptic centre-right” (editorial, June 21).

This accurate comment puts into perspective the rather wild speculation over the possibility of a split within the Tory ranks. Before the leadership election there were rumours of a score of Conservative MPs considering switching en bloc to the Labour benches if Clarke was defeated. After Hague’s victory Paddy Ashdown somewhat optimistically called for disaffected Tories to “find a welcome home with the Liberal Democrats”.

The truth is the chances of a substantial split are virtually nil. While the defection of one or two individual mavericks is not impossible (that is a normal feature of bourgeois politics), the overwhelming majority from all wings know that the Conservative Party, with its organic links to the ruling class, remains the preferred party of the bourgeoisie. As Blair attacks the working class, Labour’s popularity will plummet, and the job of the bourgeois opposition is to channel anger and frustration back to itself. Only the Tories can fulfil that role. Without an upsurge in class struggle which creates the possibility of a genuine working class alternative or the appearance of a new extreme rightwing organisation, disaffection can be contained within the normal two-party system.

That is why the Tories will continue to unite a broad coalition of mainstream establishment forces and why talk of a chasm dividing its left and right wings is greatly exaggerated. The remarkable last-minute deal between Kenneth Clarke and John Redwood in the leadership election is perhaps not so surprising when viewed in this context. It was an attempt to create precisely the kind of unity that the Tories need to rebuild their support. But the clumsily contrived pact backfired and even caused some of Clarke’s supporters - including, it is reported, John Major - to switch to Hague.

Hague’s shadow cabinet selection has shown that he too is aware of the need for party unity. Although it was dominated by the centre-right, it also included Euro-enthusiasts Stephen Dorrell, Sir George Young and David Curry, Clarke’s campaign manager. The main concession to the far right was the appointment of Redwood himself. Hague made clear that he also wanted Clarke in his team, an appointment pre-empted by the former chancellor’s announcement that he would return, Heath-like, to the back benches.

This decision was undoubtedly influenced by Hague’s announcement that all shadow cabinet members must agree to oppose Britain’s membership of a single currency for five years. Before the final-round election Michael Heseltine commented: “It is wrong for a potential leader to lay down terms which must divide the party by definition. That excludes a significant part of Conservative thinking.”

But Peter Lilley replied that the new policy was in fact the best way to unite the Tories: “That was the direction we were moving in, and I am sure that will be acceptable to the whole bulk of the party.” The five-year edict was described by Hague supporters as a “technicality” which could easily be overcome, enabling Clarke to accept a post in the shadow cabinet.

Clarke’s refusal may well have had more to do with questions of personality than the policy change on Europe. No doubt he was more than a little put out by the election of “an untried 36-year old” in preference to “a proven world class politician on a unity ticket” (The Independent June 20). A little more unkindly description of the election was that of an anonymous Tory rightwinger, who dubbed it a choice between “a nerd in short trousers and a Heathite rustbucket”.

Be that as it may, there is no question that the Conservative Party will now pull together in opposition. Peter Lilley is right to suggest that the best line to follow now the party is out of government is a more Eurosceptic one. Of course if an extreme anti-Europe position were to be adopted on a long-term basis, that would make the Tories completely irrelevant to the needs of British capital. But the five-year policy happily coincides with the minimum period they are likely to be in opposition.

During that time, to meet the Maastricht criteria, Blair will be forced to launch a generalised attack on working class living standards, and any bourgeois opposition - even one led by Kenneth Clarke - would naturally seek to take advantage of Labour’s difficulties by posing as the champion of Britain’s ‘vital interests’ against the ‘excesses’ of the Brussels bureaucrats.

No one should underestimate the potential of the Tories to quickly recover - even to the point of winning the next election. Whatever happens over the coming period, the ruling class will do its utmost to ensure that its political representatives - Labour or Tory - will continue the drive towards capitalist integration.

Alan Fox