August 02, 2005

The Six Opportunities: How an incoming Tory Leader could deal with the challenges awaiting him

Posted by Watlington

In the article The Six Poisoned Chalices: What may await an incoming Tory leader, Watlington set out the six major problems which could create major difficulties for the new Tory leader. This week, Watlington suggests how the poison could be removed from these six issues and how, if handled correctly, they could actually represent real opportunities for the new Tory Leader to show his mettle. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Opportunity Number One: A Mass Membership Party
Whatever the MPs or the National Convention decide, the new Leader should pledge to restore grassroots democracy in the Conservative Party. One option would be to institute an electoral college, another to introduce primaries a method guaranteed to encourage more Conservative inclined voters to become members. This would immediately signal to the outside world that Conservatives are a changing and open party, without having to take in all the modernising baggage of discrimination, women only shortlists etc. The simple fact is that Conservatives will only attract new Members if they know that membership really give the opportunity to take part in making real decisions.

Opportunity Number Two: A Confident Leadership and independence of thought and action
Leadership can be strong, confident and determined without the need to be all controlling. Rather than trying to impose a form of "Democratic Centralism" upon the Conservative Party - as is the current fashion - the new Leader should announce that anyone on the backbenches will be free to have independence of action. Moreover the Whip should be relaxed (except for the Frontbench) for most votes allowing the Conservatives backbenches to vote as they see fit. Similarly Parliamentary Candidates would be permitted to speak out on key issues of the day.

Handled correctly, the Leadership could show that the Frontbench was united but that it was encouraging free debate on the Backbenches et al - in order to spur on independence and to ensure that their MPs and Candidates were not just party clones.

The results of the 2005 election show that the voting public much prefer MPs and Candidates who are independent and closely rooted in their local communities rather than being party placemen. The new politics is no longer tribal, people want free spirits and free thinkers to represent them.

Initially, the media would try to highlight party divisions, but providing the Frontbench was united, the Leader could make it be known from day one that a changing and open party is a party that allows free debate. Remember, offering independence of thought and action does not mean allowing personal abuse or sniping to the media (see below). No Conservative should ever be allowed to publicly attack a fellow Conservative.

Opportunity Number Three: Statesmanship rather than Factionalism
Whoever becomes Leader of the Conservative Party should begin his leadership not on a year zero basis (because the truth is that no one can forget the past). Nevertheless there are opportunities to show magnanimity and appoint talented rivals to senior positions on a probationary basis. Magnanimous gestures could do much to heal wounds in either the David Davis or Notting Hill camps. The Conservative Leader should announce that anyone found briefing against colleagues to the media will be sacked with the threat of the whip being removed.

Opportunity Number Four: Europe
This will require immense will and determination from the new Leader. He should announce that from day one, a Conservative Government would veto every piece of legislation emanating from Europe, until there was a major renegotiation of the various Treaties ensuring that significant powers were handed back to Britain. A Conservative Government should also curtail its budgetary contribution, until a serious renegotiation had taken place. This would do much to weaken UKIP and stop some senior Party activists and Peers from potential defection.

Opportunity Number Five: Relevance
The New Leader should make the Conservative Party relevant again by setting out in, a series of speeches and articles, Britain's place in the world and the Conservative response to the war on terror. When Margaret Thatcher was Opposition Leader before becoming PM, she made the Conservative Party pertinent by making a number of serious speeches about the threat of communism and the Soviet Empire. Roundly derided by the Michael Moore Conservatives of her day, the speeches nevertheless had considerable impact and ensured that Conservatism had a major role on the political stage. It also began Thatcher's rapprochement with America (something else that will be sorely needed after Michael Howard's equivocations over Iraq).

The Conservative response should be far sighted, tough, un-PC and not be afraid of upsetting the left-liberal consensus. The war on terror, the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, and the problems of asylum and immigration are the major issues of our time and the Conservative Party needs to show that it is seeking answers to these problems.

Opportunity Number Six: Dealing with Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown is not expected to become Labour Leader for a while but the critique against him should start now. A serious strategy should be developed for dealing with Mr Brown. Every speech, every article, every statement, every press release, every Tory advert and every Party Political Broadcast should focus on diminishing Mr Brown in the eyes of the electorate. Tony Blair is already disliked by the public and will step down. This means that Blair should be ignored. There is a desperate need to puncture Mr Brown's bubble, to highlight the waste, the control, the failures in the public service. If Conservatives wait until Brown becomes the Leader, it will then be too late. Currently opinion polls show that - in marked contrast to Mr Blair - the Chancellor is extremely popular. The Conservative target must be to turn that lead into a negative from day one. If the Conservatives successfully damage Brown from early on, then if the economy does turn for the worse, the likelihood is that the public will turn on Labour.

A Leadership candidate that took on at least some of these opportunities would be seen not only to be changing the Conservative Party for the better, but would be regarded as courageous and having a clear compass of where he wants to go. The question remains, is there anyone out there?

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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Opportunities [1] to [3] represent common sense for all parties.

Opportunities [4] to [6] sound as though they could have been written by Lord Rennard.

Come on Watlington, stop living in the 1970s!

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at August 2, 2005 08:16 PM

On suggestion 2 re. The Backbenchers, how realistic is it to suppose that giving independence of voting would actually benefit the party. Perhaps it might engender "spirited debate". Perhaps it might conjour up an image of a fresh and democratic party. Similarly it might lead to open warfare and revolt. Would this policy remain the same if the Tories got back into power? If so, what would happen if there was a re-run of the 1990's? Has the party moved on enough to actually be sufficiently mature to handle a less than rigid whip being inforced? Based upon the conduct as witnessed during the leadership race to date - I suspect not.

On suggestion 4 re. Europe I would have to sugest that it's slightly unworkable.
Once in power, any government will realise that a blanket veto of all new European directives and policies is utterly unworkable and would place Britian in a completely untenable position with other European countries.

"So what?" you might say - but in truth, anyone who has worked at the coal-face of foreign affairs will tell you that an enormous amount of goodwill is required to maintain a country's standing with other nations and undue obstinancy on pertinent issues can reap most unpleasant returns. For instance, in unforseen circumstances such as 7/7 and its aftermath, how would Britain be albe to rush through anti-terror measures if it had previously been blocking all other legislation that didn't suit her interests?

Point 6 - dealing with Gordon Brown, caution must be urged. Attacking him will be necessary. Getting a head start will be good. But if the excesses of single issue obsessions rear their ugly heads once again (think immigration in the election this year), irreperable damage could be done to electoral prospects. In short - by focussing too much on Brown and not proposing enough alternatives - the Conservatives could wind up looking like a bunch of nasty nutters.

In all Watlington, a superb diagnosis of the problems, and a good start on the solutions. However a bit of a rethink is required on some of the ways forward.

Posted by: Keith Mallon at August 3, 2005 10:13 AM
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