'First 11' floundering

Eddie Ford looks at the Tories in disarray as they 'discuss' on how to choose Michael Howard's successor

The long haul to find a successor to Michael Howard has begun in earnest, as the Tories settle down for a debate, or row, about how to elect the party leader and, more crucially, to agonise over the Conservative Party's future political identity and direction. More or less power to the grassroots members? Modernisation or traditionalism? Social liberalism or old-style conservatism? And so on. Of course, the still disorientated Tories - the supposedly 'natural' party of government - have been struggling for some time to find anything resembling a coherent strategic vision, or 'big idea', capable of galvanising support from an increasingly torpid and disaffected electorate. There is an obvious problem here - to a considerable extent, Blair's New Labour project has snatched away many of the rightwing populist goodies they found on Thatcher's stall. Michael Howard with David Davies: dying king and future heir? However, for the Tories to position themselves to the right of the current-day Labour Party runs the inherent danger of seeing them rub shoulders with the likes of the United Kingdom Independence Party or Robert Kilroy-Silk's Veritas - perhaps even the British National Party. But, on the other hand, to attempt to place themselves to the left of Labour is an obvious no-hoper, risking as it does the alienation of its core support, not to mention running against the Conservative Party - and historical - grain. Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that many Tories are increasingly looking to New Labour as a perverse role model - a sort of diabolical guide as to how to 'reinvent' a party that seems permanently stuck in the political doldrums. Indeed, there have long been those who believe it needs to undergo the sort of 'radical renewal' Labour achieved under Blair, and hence come up with its own 'clause four moment' and start dumping some of those Tory shibboleths. These 'modernisers' also suggest that this 'rebirth' can only be done under a leader from a new generation, possibly in the shape of Young Turks like the new shadow chancellor, George Osborne (aged 33), or David Cameron (38) - as opposed, that is, to the bookies' favourite (13-8 odds), the 56-year-old shadow home secretary, David Davies. So first we had New Labour - now hello, New Tory Party? In this neo-Blairite vein, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley has quite controversially suggested that the Tories rename themselves Reform Conservatives. This is needed, argues Lansley, in order to show the country that the party has set a new course: "The point of saying that we should describe ourselves as the Reform Conservatives was that it does not require the name of the Conservative Party to change: the Labour Party is still the Labour Party. They called themselves New Labour to indicate to the public that they had changed themselves and therefore were going to change the country." In tandem with this rebranding strategy, Lansley, like many others, is convinced that the party also needs to find a new 'gene pool', when it comes to the recruitment of prospective parliamentary candidates, to make sure the Tories 'reflect' the nation as a whole - or at least that is how the theory goes. But it would be foolish to underestimate the task that faces the Conservative Party of today - its membership continues to wither on the vine and it is hard to detect any real enthusiasm, or interest, in the Tory 'project' the moment you step away from its hard core constituency. It is surely an exaggeration to say the Tory Party needs an actual miracle to revive its fortunes, but it definitely needs a certain degree of outside intervention to assist its recovery - though more in the shape of luck and accident than god. Clearly, all eyes are now focused on the battle to alter the rules that govern leadership elections, with The Daily Telegraph being of the view that "the current method was imposed almost accidentally in 1997, having started life as an off-the-cuff suggestion by someone in William Hague's leadership campaign" - and also reminds us that "appropriately for a party that is against written constitutions, the Conservatives have been hopeless at drawing up their own" (May 22). Under the current voting system, each Tory MP votes for a preferred candidate in a ballot until only two remain. The entire party membership then chooses the new leader. But with the proposed changes, which are being examined right now by the parliamentary party, MPs would first nominate leadership candidates, with anyone reaching 10% support automatically qualifying for the short list. If a candidate received nominations from more than 50% of parliamentary colleagues, he or she would de declared the winner. Otherwise, the short list would then go before a non-binding vote of the national convention, which includes the constituency party chairpersons. If the national convention voted decisively for a candidate, then it would be sending a "strong signal" to MPs. However - and here's the rub - the MPs would still have the final say in a secret ballot at Westminster, based on the original short list, and in which they could blithely ignore the convention vote. The 'consultation process' surrounding these rule changes will come to an end on July 31, followed in September by a meeting of both the parliamentary party and the convention to make the crucial decision. Both sections must approve the leadership changes by a two thirds majority, but party managers hope - or pray - the new rules will be in place for the autumn party conference and resulting leadership election. The gaping democratic deficit in these proposals is obvious, but so is the Tory Party's basic dilemma. In revealing comments to the BBC, Michael Heseltine repeated the general wisdom that for a "democratic political party" to win a general election is has to capture the "centre ground" - therefore, precisely for this reason, the Tory Party membership cannot be trusted, given the fact it leans distinctly to the right and hence makes the party unelectable. In which case, how are the Tories able to effectively differentiate themselves from Blair's New Labour - which squats imperialistically in the 'middle ground' and has won the affection and favours of the establishment, media barons, the City, etc? This particular "democratic political party" will therefore have to steer well clear of democracy. Under the direction of party chairman Frances Maude, the Tories are about to adopt a 'values' statement, which is to be formally enshrined in the party's constitution. This statement promises to serve and respect everyone in Britain, "regardless of their background, race, sex or religion". Self-evidently, such an asinine, if politically correct, declaration could just as easily have been penned by Labour or the Liberal Democrats - maybe even Ukip on a good day. The Daily Telegraph, for one, was less than impressed - and seeing how it is to all effects and purposes an in-house Tory journal, this does not bode well for the 'new' Conservative Party. Hence, a long editorial informs us that "this statement of the blindingly uncontentious is a feature of the leaderless state the Conservative Party finds itself in", adding: "But if it does indicate the direction in which Conservative grandees wish the party to go, it is somewhat worrying ... It refers to a deliberate agenda of draining Conservatism of all meaning in order to seek accommodation with the left on the soggy 'centre ground" (May 25). Instead, the Telegraph outlines its own 'counter-statement' of "solid policy principles" in order to "distinguish" the Tories from Labour. This alternative statement includes a belief that "taxation should be significantly reduced", "marriage should be actively promoted, via the tax code, as the best context for the bringing up of children" and that "schools and hospitals should be independent institutions once again". Then comes the climax: "We believe social security should be reformed to promote personal responsibility and neighbourliness, so the 'welfare state' becomes the 'welfare society', underpinned by devolved and voluntary civic organisations. We believe Britain's parliament should be sovereign. And we believe our armed forces should be properly equipped to fight terrorism and dictatorship, and that free trade and property rights should be promoted across the globe." A vote-winner? If that was not evidence enough of discontent from within the ranks, some Tory MPs are agitated by some of the other reforms that are in the pipeline. From now on, for example, there will be 15 reasons why a sitting MP can be removed, ranging from "falsification of a CV" to "inadequate performance" and causing "embarrassing media coverage". Apparently, when this package was shown to Tory backbenchers at Westminster on May 24, shortly after receiving shadow cabinet endorsement, a whole string of MPs - including supporters of the hurriedly unseated ex-MP and party chairman, Howard Flight - denounced it, and it was hard to find anyone who would speak wholeheartedly in support. Yes, the Tories have a very high mountain to climb. For all that, one thing is certain: the Conservative Party is still a long way from being dead - any more than the Labour Party was in 1980s and 1990s, despite those confidently predicting its final demise. As we know, much can change in a single week or month, let alone in four years. Yes, the Tories are historically the most consistent and virulent of our enemies and it is good to see them still in so much trouble. If, by chance or circumstance, they perish before our very eyes then we shall shed no tears, except those of unremitted joy. But communists have to be sober in their assessments - the ruling class may be more than comfortable with New Labour, but what about those troublesome affiliates, the trade unions? Surely it is only a matter of time before the internal balance starts to shift leftwards again. Until and unless the union link is broken, Labour will remain a bourgeois workers' party, better suited to be called upon in times of crisis. And the Tories will retain their status as the bourgeoisie's traditional party of choice, its 'first 11'. Eddie Ford