1990s >> 1998 >> no-1126-june-1998

Greasy Pole: Tories lying low?

The Tory Party moves in a mysterious way, its wonders to perform. Well that bit about performing wonders may explain how they are moving at the present—which is mysterious indeed. We refer to the fact that, just over a year since Tony Blair moved into Number Ten, the Conservative Party seems bent on convincing everyone that they are in a condition rather like those persistent comas which often affect the victims of serious accidents. They are almost immobile. They make hardly a sound. Anxious friends gather round, wondering whether it is true yet to switch off the beeping life-support machine.

While it is true that William Hague is active and noisy, often outsmarting Blair in the puerile exchanges of Prime Minister’s Questions (which sends the sparsely occupied benches behind him into raptures) the same cannot be said for the rest of the Tory Shadow ministers. For example the career of Robin Cook at the Foreign Office has so far been a succession of crises—without counting those on his domestic scene. A most recent of these has been the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair, which threatened to implicate him over the breaches of a United Nations embargo on sending weapons to that unhappy country. But through all his difficulties it seems that Cook has been able to rely on his opposite number not to make things more difficulty by behaving like—well, his opposite number.

For those who don’t know it—and there must be many—Cook is shadowed by Michael Howard, who used to be a Home Secretary who would bring the House down at Tory Conferences with his promises to have half the population in prison and the other half keeping them there. Howard made a name for himself as a political bruiser (as Jack Straw once found out, to his obvious discomfort) and he was expected to give Cook a very, very rough ride. When he did speak on the issue it was not with his customary ruthlessness.

Mary Bell

Then there is the case of the man Howard savaged in the Commons. Jack Straw looks and sounds like a person oppressed by visions of marauding teenagers out late at night, washing the windscreens of strangers’ cars when they should be at home doing their homework. Straw’s quick-fire populist responses to every vote-worthy incident in the lad-and-order filed makes the knee-jerk reactions for which Thatcher’s Home Secretaries were notorious look positively elephantine. Consider, for example, his desperate attempts to cash in on the tabloid frenzy over the Gita Sereny book about Mary Bell. There is no question that Mary Bell did an awful thing—although how awful it was in comparison to the mass murder in wars which the Labour Party so eagerly supports is another question. It was probably an unwise move by the author, to pay Mary Bell for being interviewed for the book—although how this should be worse than the arms industry making profits by supplying dictatorships in places like Indonesia is something to ponder on.

But these were side issues. The gutter press, ignoring the fact that some of them had made large offers to Mary Bell for her story, saw a wonderful opportunity to create the kind of self-righteous panic which helps them sell so many copies. Faced with a surge of mob hysteria demanding all manner of irrelevant, illegal or impractical things, Straw might have taken a stand, instead he acted in what we suppose must be called his character and posed as the mob’s friend in High Places.

After 1945

The Shadow Home Secretary is Brian Mawhinney, who during his time as Tory Party chairman had plenty of practice in the business of reconstructing reality and seizing every opportunity to make a party point. Naively, it might have been expected that Mawhinney would have wanted to expose Straw’s disgraceful behaviour, if only to make a few people wonder whether there was more to him than a dishonest party hack. But from Mawhinney there was no comment worth so much as a mention in the media. Perhaps he was submissively contemplating his own boredom, which is rumoured to be responsible for Hague’s intention to ditch him at the coming reshuffle.

Stephen Dorrell, who was a minister in the last government and who may yet become Conservative leader, had recently said that his party is deliberately keeping silent because the voters simply don’t want to hear from them for a couple of years. Dorrell says that was how the Tories behaved after their defeat in 1945 but that hardly fits the facts. As in 1997, in 1945 the Conservative were damaged by a reputation for cynicism and complacency. They were held responsible for the inter-war slumps and for collusion with Nazi Germany, which led to the outbreak of war. But their reaction to electoral defeat was anything but despairing. Under the chairmanship of Woolton they at once set about reorganising their party.

One effect of this was to turf out many of the vacuous buffoons who rarely spoke in, or even attended, the Commons but who had won the nomination for a safe Tory seat by contributing handsomely to the local party’s funds. It was among these Honourable members that the Nazis had their most enthusiastic supporters. Another effect was the production of a series of policy statements—like the Industrial Charter, which was approved at the 1947 Tory Conference, described by its originator R. A. Butler in his memoirs as

” . . . an assurance that, in the interests of efficiency, full employment and social security, modern Conservatism would maintain strong central guidance over the operation of the economy.”

Election winners

And there was the emergence of the Tory Party, out from the genteel exchanges of coffee mornings and whist drives into the crude robustness of the outdoor meeting. This was quite a shock to them, not to mention to their audiences but it was all intended to prove that the party had changed; it had taken the lesson of the defeat to heart and it was now a party which cared and listened and acted. A people’s party in fact—and where have we heard that before?

Whatever the reason for the Conservatives being now so quiescent it would be very unwise to write them off as an electoral force, as so many did in 1945. They are among the world’s most expert election winners, which was why Blair and his acolytes decided that Labour’s best chance of being elected was to become as much like the Tories as possible. For the Conservatives there is an obvious danger in keeping so far below the parapet: stay there too long and the voters will grow up believing that Tony Blair has always ruled over us and always will—which will be neither mysterious nor wonderful.


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