Rattled Tories crown Howard

Michael Malkin says the Tory leadership contest tells us much about the state of the Conservative Party

Exit the goon, enter the ghoul. The latest act in the Westminster farce known as the Tory leadership contest - though this time there will not be a contest, but rather a coronation - tells us much about the state of the Conservative Party. The parliamentary party has unilaterally decided to place the future of Toryism in the hands of a 62-year-old rightwinger, a man who appropriately looks like Lazarus risen from the grave and has all the charisma of a superannuated insurance salesman.

Good news for us and our class in that case? Up to a point. To see our historical main enemy enacting this macabre spectacle - conspiracy and bloody daggers one minute, hearty unity and handshakes the next - is certainly amusing. For the last two centuries the Tories have been at the centre of British polity, in their own words but not unjustifiably dubbed ‘the natural party of government’. In that time they have consistently used every legal and sometimes illegal tactic to fight for the interests of capital against labour and have caused untold misery to millions of our people. If you forget everything else, remember what the Thatcher government did during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85.

They were the natural party of the ruling class - they were indeed the executive committee of the ruling class hiding behind the sham legitimacy of parliamentary democracy. But great parties do fall into decay and die - witness the old Liberal Party. The death of the Tory Party, or its fissiparation into a number of antagonistic sectlets, which this writer still finds an unconvincing prospect, would certainly be good news for the British working class.

Not just for us, however. This must have been the best few days that Blair and New Labour have had for a long time, because for the first time since May 1 1997 Labour has started to look in real trouble.

On the evidence available, the Hutton enquiry ought to find that Blair himself was complicit in the exposure of Dr Kelly, and, much more seriously, that Alastair Campbell conspired with the chairman of the joint intelligence committee and former senior MI6 officer John Scarlett to produce a false, politically motivated intelligence dossier which was used by the prime minister as part of his justification for embarking on an imperialist war against Iraq - a war against which two million people marched in London to protest.

Then there is the failure of Labour to live up to any of its bragging about transforming public services. Big and small capital has done very well, thank you, chancellor, but health, education and transport remain in crisis. Add to that the prospect of rising interest rates, with all that means for Gordon Brown’s grandiose spending plans (more public borrowing, higher taxes, the failure of many small businesses living on the margin and a collapse of confidence in the housing market, to name just a few) and the already tangible sense of disenchantment with Labour which some recent polls have revealed could have real implications for the next election.

Then there were last spring’s council elections, things we so easily forget, in which the Conservatives quietly regained some lost territory. Realistically, however, it seemed much more likely that they had only another heavy defeat to look forward to. That is why Iain Duncan Smith had to go.

Yet whatever Tony Blair’s present-day frustrations and difficulties, things could get much worse for Labour. Remember the words of an old Tory prime minister: “Events, dear boy, events”. And two years to the next general election is certainly a long time in politics; a long time in which the Tories could hope to regain the confidence of not just the electorate, but of their former backers in the ruling class who have so far found Blair a more than adequate replacement for Thatcher.

But Duncan Smith was always floundering. Not only did the Tories fail under his leadership to really dent the government’s standing with the electorate, but Liberal Democrat claims that they would constitute the next official opposition no longer looked like mere conference braggadocio. So the knives came out. After Betsygate, an attempt to smear IDS with charges of peculation, an attempt so pathetic and inept that it had to have come from within the ranks of Tory MPs anxious to be rid of him; after the public withdrawal of support by key donors; after a nightmare of a conference (forget the 20 standing ovations), where the leadership was a theme of constant speculation eagerly stoked up by his enemies and by the media, especially the BBC; after his denunciation by former strategist Dominic Cummings; and finally after reportedly being described by lady Thatcher as the worst leader the Tories had ever had, it was obvious that Duncan Smith had lost even the semblance of authority and confidence.

The end came swiftly with one of those characteristically ruthless Tory assassinations, orchestrated by a cabal of shadow cabinet ‘colleagues’ and staged by a motley collection of disaffected has-beens and ambitious would-bes. Once a handful of these pathetic specimens had finally screwed up the courage to go public with their demand for a leadership change, the outcome of the 1922 Committee meeting on October 29 was predictable.

In one sense, this was a coup in so far as the democratic procedures set in place by William Hague were blatantly and cynically circumvented. But to argue that this move represents an attempt by the Tory grandees to wrest back control of the party from the rightwing backwoodsmen in the shires is much too simplistic. The membership base of the Conservative Party is in reality no more homogeneous than that of Labour. Remember that even Portillo’s liberal reforming agenda (whatever people may have thought about him personally) had quite a significant following in the party back in 2001, during the last leadership contest. Stereotyping the whole of the Conservative Party as reactionary scum is unscientific and gets us nowhere.

Certainly, the decision of Michael Howard’s potential rivals to leave him unopposed, effectively disenfranchising the party in the country from any participation in the process, was a necessary part of the conspirators’ plot, since it was the members who in large numbers put Duncan Smith into the leadership in the first place - though his popularity with them has undoubtedly diminished during the 777 days when he was at the helm and failed to demonstrate the winning qualities that they thought he possessed.

Reports tell us that some sections of the membership are spitting blood at being denied their say. That is no doubt true. But in reality they know just as well as their Westminster representatives that a leadership election now, inevitably prolonged and acrimonious, revealing once again the depth of division and the insoluble contradictions, would have led to nothing but ignominy. That is why things actually had to be done in the way they were. In some cases there may perhaps be moves by adamant constituency officials to deselect MPs they believe to have behaved dishonourably; others may vote with their feet, but the damage seems likely to be quite containable.

So, if we can understand why it has to be now, why does it have to be Howard? Neither in parliament nor in the country has he ever been a popular figure. To be sure, his ultra-rightwing agenda at the home office was well received by party conferences, but they would have applauded a baboon eloquent enough to have come forward with the same tough line on crime, ‘law and order’, immigration and so forth. Howard was seen as arrogant, smarmy and ambitious (like all Tory politicians, then) but to a degree that made him particularly loathsome. It had nothing to do with his being a Jew. Jews have been prominent in the top echelons of the party for years - at least a dozen names spring immediately to mind. In fact Howard himself (incredibly) uses his background as the son of Jewish migrants to allege that he has a sort of instinctive empathy with immigrants and asylum-seekers.

It was not his ethnic background nor his record as a minister, but his personality and the fact that he had never acquired a power base either in the parliamentary party or in the country, that scuppered his chances when he last contested a leadership election. His case was not helped by the mad and wild-eyed Widdecombe, who famously told the world that he had “something of the night about him”. Pots and kettles indeed. In any event he came sixth out of a field of six.

So what has changed? If you look back at the contests from which Hague and Duncan Smith emerged as victors, what you see are men elected not for what they were but for what they were not. The perceived imperative at the time was to keep out the big beasts, whose disagreements on such questions as Europe were great enough to wreck or split the party altogether and thus destroy its chances of regaining the trust and support of the ruling class in the wake of capital’s love affair with Blair. The purpose of Hague and Duncan Smith was to provide a facade of unity and purpose behind which the big beasts could sort themselves out, but they never did.

Hague was promoted too early: in a desperate effort to revive interest in the Tory alternative he went from breast-beating humility and inclusivism (an early manifestation of Portilloism) to berating foreigners and telling the country that ‘we have five minutes to save the pound’ or some such nonsense. The drubbing that the Conservative Party received was well deserved. Now it appears that Duncan Smith should never have been promoted at all. He has said nothing memorable except that he is a quiet man, Chingford’s answer to Clint Eastwood. The so-called ‘raft’ of new policies presented to the electorate as an alternative to Blairism is embarrassingly incoherent and based on arithmetic which even a 12-year-old would find to be deficient.

In these desperate circumstances it is not actually that surprising that the last of the big beasts to occupy the shadow front bench, the only man with any real ministerial experience at all, should be called upon to save the day. As The Daily Telegraph’s leader writer put it, “Only Michael Howard fits the bill” (October 30). The party has evidently been given “a new lease of life just in the nick of time”. In what way? Apparently it is down to his gravitas and his forensic skill at the despatch box. He will make mincemeat of Tony Blair at prime minister’s question time. Maybe he will, but who cares? Is the Westminster village so cut off from reality that it imagines anyone apart from sad people like myself actually tunes in and watches this palaver? It is as if PMQs were a sort of parliamentary version of Pop idols.

In reality probably only a tiny minority of the population actually knows who Michael Howard is. It will not be his sneering soundbites conveyed on the TV news that will convince them to vote Tory as an alternative to Blair, but some kind of cogent programme in response to Labour failure. That the Tories have not got. Why? In large part because New Labour has stolen all their clothes.

Take one example. Readers may recall that back in 2001, during the last leadership race, The Daily Telegraph launched a series of leaders and articles around the theme of “A free country”. Howard’s contribution was “Do we really want the freedom to be robbed and murdered?” (July 13 2001). In it he argued vociferously for the full gamut of repressive law and order legislation which Thatcher and he would like to have enacted: a compulsory national DNA database, CCTV cameras everywhere, curtailment of the right to silence and the right of trial by jury, generalised interception of electronic communications, and (from this man so sympathetic to the plight of immigrants like his persecuted Jewish parents) compulsory identity cards, not only to deal with the problem of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers but to reduce benefit fraud.

Can you see Howard’s and the Tories’ problem? All of these ‘Tory’ measures now form the core agenda of New Labour under David Blunkett at the home office. So we have a situation now where the newly ‘reborn’ Howard (“I shall lead this party from the centre”, whatever that means) and his colleagues have no alternative but to pose left on key social issues. If they tried to move right of Blair, they would end up fighting a turf war with the British National Party.

Just as a party moves across the political spectrum in its desire for power (and desire for power is deep in the entrails of every Tory), so does its class base. We forget perhaps too easily that, in the Thatcher glory years, the Conservative Party enjoyed a significant degree of support from sections of the working class. In the main, when disillusionment with the Conservatives set in and there were economic difficulties, they ended up defecting back to Blair and New Labour.

Were there a major downturn in the economy, for example, another war crisis, a major scandal, or whatever, all that could change quite rapidly and - unbelievable as it sounds now - you could see Howard’s toad-like grin on the front steps of Downing Street. It is much too early to write off the Tories, but our main enemy remains New Labour - and our strategic task breaking the working class from Labourism; offering them a real socialist alternative.