July 22, 2005

The Six Poisoned Chalices: What may await an incoming Tory leader

Posted by Watlington

It is commonly assumed that the Conservatives are through the worst of times and that once the new leadership is in place the Conservatives have a real chance of winning power next time. But what if the opposite is the case and the Conservative Party is indeed in terminal decline. Here Watlington sets out the six poisoned chalices facing the new Tory Leader. In his next article Watlington will suggest how these can be overcome. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Poisoned Chalice Number One: The Conservative Party Membership and the Westminster Village
This week Conservative MPs voted to remove the rights of party members to vote for the leadership candidates. Although things are quiet now, this is likely to provoke much discontent amongst party activists and lead to a significant loss of morale. Moreover it will hinder the development of the Conservatives as a mass membership party because members will feel they have no real stake. The decision ensures that the Westminster village is even further removed from the party at large. Why should members knock on doors and do all the voluntary work, if they are just treated like fodder by MPs? If membership is declining, then this decision will make the decline even worse.

Poisoned Chalice Number Two: Control from the Centre
There are moves from Michael Howard's office, the Whips Office and the Candidate's Department to have more control over individual MPs and candidates. These moves are provoking fierce resentment amongst backbenchers. The Howard Flight affair - the Notting Hillers "clause 4 moment" - was an act of symbolism in more ways than one. It was an attempt to seem "tough" by being seen to "act" by treating Flight harshly. However the centre was also attempting to take control over the parliamentary party by creating a precedent with the sacking of Flight. Moreover under the party reform proposals, the centre will be given huge powers over constituency associations and will be able to merge them together if they wish.

Poisoned Chalice Number Three: Factionalism
Whoever wins the leadership contest, it is possible that the defeated side may not accept losing. The Notting Hillers are determined that David Davis should not run the party and even if he wins, there may be serious trouble ahead as they plot for a another leadership contest in two years, in the same way that they got rid of Iain Duncan Smith.

Similarly the David Davis team despise the Notting Hillers for briefing against David Davis. They are particularly incensed about a number of articles by Bruce Anderson that appeared before and after the election. Bruce Anderson's articles heavily criticised Davis for being lazy and ineffective. Davis was furious about Anderson's pieces and believed them to be influenced by David Cameron and Rachel Whetstone (Michael Howard's political secretary). At the time Davis was reported to have said that "Cameron will pay for this". Davis was particularly angry because he had claimed the scalps of David Blunkett and Beverly Hughes. Whatever the truth of these stories, there is certainly bad blood between the two camps and it will take remarkable statesmanship to keep the factions at peace.

Poisoned Chalice Number Four: Europe
Despite various attempts to sweep this issue under the carpet, the issue of Europe will not go away. In an important speech a few days ago, Bernard Jenkin MP set out just how central the EU was to all our affairs and how the issue of Europe had to be a core one for all Conservatives. Eurosceptics are furious with the Conservative leadership for forcing MEPs to join the Federalist European People's Party. The Eurosceptics also believe that if the Conservatives had had a strong line on the EU, they could have won an extra 20 - 30 seats at the general election because fewer votes would have seeped to UKIP in critical constituencies. A number of Conservative Peers were openly talking this week of joining UKIP and have had a number of meetings and dinners with UKIP MEP Nigel Farage. Some Eurosceptics are urging David Davis in particular to be more forthright. There is also a strong chance of resignations from wealthy backers of the party as well as a number of senior members should Ken Clarke get the leadership.

Poisoned Chalice Number Five: Irrelevance
In Portcullis House yesterday (MPs offices by the Commons), a senior Shadow Minister and former Government Minister was heard to remark that "the Tory Party is now an irrelevance given all recent events with terrorism and international security". He had a point. Whilst the Tory Party have been debating arcane leadership rule changes, terrorist bombs have been going off across London. If this carries on, it is inevitable that the country will concentrate its attention on the Prime Minister and it will make it even harder for the Conservatives to get their message across and provide any credible opposition.

Poisoned Chalice Number Six: Gordon Brown
The current consensus is that we are heading for an economic downturn. But what if the economy remains steady or the downturn is smaller than expected? What if Gordon Brown becomes Labour leader, wins back the Labour heartlands, keeps the floating voters on board and calls an immediate election? Under this scenario, the future for the Conservatives looks very bleak indeed.

But these poisoned chalices are not impossible for a new Conservative leader to overcome. The question is, will any of the leadership candidates have the courage to overcome them? At present all the candidates are like hedgehogs in front of an approaching lorry. Prickly and bad tempered but still likely to be crushed because they are too frightened to think outside the box and say anything really controversial. David Davis has come closest with his talk of lowering taxes for the poor. But which candidate is prepared to go further and stand up for party democracy, speak with passion about a mass membership party and explain how he will deal with the EU once and for all? Unless they start setting these things out, irrelevance and a Brown victory could become a fait accompli.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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Who is Watlington?

Posted by: Gabby at July 22, 2005 05:22 PM
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