Tories go to pot

"We're ready for it now. Go on, Tony, call it now." Sounding, rather ludicrously, like a Yorkshire version of Clint Eastwood, Tory leader William Hague used his speech at last week's Bournemouth conference to challenge the prime minister to call an immediate general election.

The burden of his address, indeed the theme of the whole week, was that here is a party ripe for government, ready to govern "with the common sense instincts of the people of this country"; a party with a genuine alternative vision for British society; a party with a strong leader and a united team of competent ministers; a party with confidence in victory and a restored sense of self-belief.

To be sure, in the immediate aftermath of Labour's black September - the Blair administration's debacle over the fuel protests and a growing sense of popular fatigue with the government's performance on such issues as health and education - the Tories found themselves ahead in the polls for the first time in years. That lead has already evaporated and, even before Hague got up to speak, the plot was unravelling before our eyes.

What we saw at Bournemouth was a party still riven by profound contradiction and tension, still struggling, and failing, to come up with a coherent, concrete programme; a shadow cabinet that, far from anticipating victory, is already positioning itself along sharply divided ideological lines for the leadership contest that in all probability will follow in the wake of a second electoral defeat that they privately concede is a racing certainty.

The central contradiction is between, on the one hand, the correctly perceived need by the left of the party to project a more 'moderate' and 'caring' one-nation conservatism and, on the other, the visceral reactionary populism that has seen Hague and senior shadow ministers such as Ann Widdecombe pandering to the right on such issues as asylum-seekers, clause 28 and family values.

Supposedly, British elections are won and lost in the centre, and so, to use one of the leader's favourite epithets, it is obviously mere "common sense" that the party needs to reach out not only to those voters who defected to Labour in 1997 - the swathe of 'middle Englanders' so assiduously and successfully cultivated by Blair - but also to the working class and ethnic minorities in the inner cities. According to his own figures, the Tories need to capture something in the region of 11 million 'grey' votes.

Hence the conference's central slogan of 'A Conservative Party for all'; hence the appeal from a resurrected John Major - abandoning his own (exclusively 'English') vision of warm beer, cricket grounds and old ladies bicycling to evensong - that the Tories should now be speaking to "the people outside the circle of rising prosperity, the black and brown and yellow Britons" (The Guardian October 3). Yellow? I suppose we know what he means.

Gone (or at least expediently put out of sight for the moment) is that repellent strain of English nationalism with which Hague was toying as recently as last summer and exemplified by 'Strengthening the union after devolution', a keynote speech delivered to the Centre for Policy Studies. Draping himself simultaneously in the union jack and the flag of St George, Hague then gave a schizophrenic address: on the one hand, extolling the virtues of the union; on the other, launching a hypocritical jeremiad on the "ugly and dangerous" phenomenon of English nationalism.

He attacked Blair for his refusing to tackle the "unfair position of England" in the light of Scottish and Welsh devolution, and pointed to "an emerging national consciousness ... Try to ignore this English consciousness or bottle it up and it will turn into a more dangerous English nationalism that can threaten the future of the United Kingdom ... recognise its value, and it actually strengthens our common British identity" (Daily Mail July 16 1999). Maintaining that "the drums of English nationalism are already beating", that "doing nothing is not an option" and that anomalies created by New Labour's devolution represented a "ticking time bomb beneath the British constitution", with evident relish he spoke of "an English nationalist backlash" (ibid.).

Now the tune is very different. The unlikely mouthpiece for all the inane, transparent, crypto-Blairite rhetoric of 'inclusivity', of celebrating difference and diversity, was none other than Michael Portillo, for whom Bournemouth was the final stage in rebranding himself from a hard-line Thatcherite 'tankie' to a 'caring' Conservative with a tender conscience. Leaving aside an obligatory passage devoted to bashing the euro, and some broad-brush pledges about spending more than Labour on public services (while lowering the tax burdens on "business and enterprise"), the shadow chancellor had precious little to say about what he called "dry economics". Instead he gave his listeners a sermon on the iniquities of "Little Englandism", a sin which he confessed to having committed himself - before he saw the light while working as a TV reporter and hospital porter. Portillo's road from Enfield via Damascus purportedly left an indelible impression, and transformed him into a passionate advocate of "rich ethnic diversity" and respect for gays and lesbians. He even had a compassionate word to say for asylum-seekers, "who come to Britain in fear of their lives".

This was not so much a conference speech as the personal manifesto of a candidate for the leadership. In some respects it clearly contradicted the leader's own approach, but Portillo evidently thinks that to put some clear pink water between himself and Hague can do him much good in the long run. To see Portillo unambiguously as the candidate of the left is, however, mistaken. Groups like Conservative Mainstream, set up by Heseltine to counter the rightwards drift in the party's social policy, are predominantly Europhile and have no stomach for Portillo's and Hague's line on the single currency. It fell to Ken Clarke to voice this faction's rejection of current party policy on 'saving the pound' in a vitriolic speech that denounced Portillo for talking "blithering economic nonsense".

As regards the other pole of the contradiction - that cynically opportunist trend of populism and reaction exemplified by the likes of the 'darling of the activists', shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, it goes without saying that the 'touchy-feely' politics of nouveau-Portilloism were not to their taste. Their notion of morality tends in a much more reactionary and authoritarian direction.

The right's answer came the day after Portillo's speech, with a magnificently rabid rant from Widdecombe herself. With due deference to the apostles of political correctness in its more extreme forms, let us say that this lady is not so much 'challenged' in the personality department as, frankly, barking. The fact that some influential figures in the party see her as a viable replacement for Hague eloquently attests to their own sad dissociation from reality. Repelled by the idea of the C of E having women priests, with the zeal of a convert this disordered and unpleasant personality has espoused the most reactionary and obscurantist wing of the Roman Catholic faith. For her, the source of truth in all matters, whether political or moral, is not so much to be found in Smith Square as in the Vatican. Pride of place in her pantheon no doubt goes to the recently beatified pope, Pius IX, whose Syllabus of errors denounced not merely socialism, but the very idea of democracy as a grave aberration.

Strutting around the platform, Widdecombe produced a speech that was just about as 'off message' as it was possible to be in the Bournemouth of 'inclusivity'. Abandoning the Tory right's (and Jack Straw's) preference for singling out vulnerable minorities (single mothers, asylum-seekers, dole 'cheats' and so forth) as the easiest targets for 'moral' venom, Widdecombe chose to focus her attack on, of all people, the users of cannabis. At a stroke, a very significant chunk of the population, cutting across all class and social divides, was threatened not just with 'on the spot' fines of £100 for possession, but with effective criminalisation. Bizarrely, even people found to have cannabis in their blood would be charged with possessing it. The police would no longer have the option of dealing with the matter by way of a simple caution.

Within minutes of Widdecombe concluding her moral tirade against what she tried to depict as the source of innumerable social evils, the political fallout began. Despite the fact that her intentions were flagged in the press on the eve of the speech, unnamed senior Tories began briefing against her, alleging that the matter had not been approved by the shadow cabinet. The details are unimportant. What matters so often in politics is perception, and the perception was one of disunity and incompetence. No wonder that Hague left the whole matter unmentioned in a speech that was supposed to serve as the climax of a campaign to engage the 'mainstream majority' of the country. 'Smoke a joint and you're nicked' was not quite the message he was trying to get across.

Obviously, with an election as little as seven months away, Hague could hardly ditch one of his most senior (and popular, at least among the senile Thatcherites) shadow ministers. It may even serve his interests to have a rival on the right who is so obviously non compos. The matter could have rested with some adroit damage limitation, but (apparently on Hague's instructions) some nine members of the shadow team have so far 'confessed' their indulgence in the dreaded substance to the tabloids. Needless to say, all of them have not touched the stuff for a couple of decades, and only one, Tim Yeo, admits to having enjoyed the experience.

On one level, this could be dismissed as trivial nonsense, but it does throw embarrassing light on the deep fissures in the Tories' supposedly monolithic phalanx. Evidence to this effect comes from the normally sane and informative Daily Mail commentator, Simon Heffer, who ascribes the whole affair to a plot by supporters of "Michael Portillo's line on 'tolerance'", something that "threatens to undo all the good done at Bournemouth" (Daily Mail October 9).

Heffer contends that "factionalism" and "backbiting" jeopardise the "rapturous" reception given to Widdecombe's 'zero-tolerance' speech on drugs and urges Hague to "reprimand" the ministers who have "revealed incidents better kept private", men who must "pull themselves together" in the interests of presenting a Tory Party that is a "proper opposition" and a "sensible and statesman-like government-in-waiting" (ibid.).

Comment is superfluous. That the Tories are a party neither ready nor fit to govern must be clear to everyone - something which a glance at their conference 'manifesto' makes even more clear. Take the pledge to cut 3p off the price of a litre of petrol. Nothing to do with a coherent package to reinvigorate British industry, to rationalise transport or protect the environment - merely a cheap piece of opportunistic populism. The same can be said for the even more cynical pledge to increase the basic rate of the state pension by £5.50 a week, a gracious concession that involves scrapping not only the winter fuel payment, the Christmas bonus and free TV licences for the over-75s, but would also, given the demographics, mean throwing overboard Labour's pitiful 'New Deal' for lone parents and slashing the social fund for lending money to poor families.

The rest of the 'manifesto' was pure hot air, delivered in a fashion that suggested that even its proponents do not really believe in it. Here is a party that has not even begun to address the problem of putting together a viable and realistic alternative to Labour's own wretchedly pathetic neo-liberal programme. So the question arises: what next? Only once in this century has a party suffered two consecutive adverse landslides, and that was in the 1920s, when the old Liberals were falling apart. In terms of historical precedent, the Tories must expect to regain some of their lost ground, but how much? Labour has the vital advantage of a bulging war chest, replete with electoral bribes. In the absence of some catastrophe for Labour, a Tory victory in 2001 looks like the stuff of pipe dreams.

For our class, neither Labour nor the Conservative Party has anything to offer but lies and delusions. Both must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Michael Malkin