April 17, 2010
Election lit for Tories by Peter Snowdon, Tim Bale, Phillip Blond and Bill Coles
Has a procession of bad leaders left the Conservatives hungry enough to win?
At last, the Tories are looking electable. The Augean stables have been scoured: toxic odours of Margaret Thatcher and the “nasty party” are fading, in large wise due to smart young Dave and his new broom.
The defeat of 1997, when I lost my seat, left the Tories with just 165 MPs, and came as a huge surprise to most of my colleagues. For them it was a bad dream; under the inept William Hague, they felt no need to inquire into their own behaviour and beliefs. The voters were wrong, and would soon come to their senses. A repeat of the awful result, in 2001, still didn’t sink in.
During the leadership contest that followed, I wrote that the contenders offered the blue-rinsed ladies a stark choice: Ken Clarke reminded them of their husbands (fat and covered in fag ash) while Michael Portillo was too like their sons (slick, selfish and slightly dodgy). But Iain Duncan Smith recalled their fathers back from the war, an unassuming man who knew little and said not a lot. That’s why IDS won it.
Duncan Smith’s disastrous 777 days as leader was the turning point. “He might, ironically, have done the party some good by being so bad,” Tim Bale observes. With Blair ascendant the party needed someone with political nous who could shake up the organisation, raise some money and raise morale. Michael Howard got the job unopposed; he promised to deliver victory on an anti-Europe, anti-change manifesto, which enthused only the diehards. When he failed even to reach 200 seats in 2005, he too quit, but stayed around long enough for Cameron to take the party by storm.
Peter Snowdon, a BBC reporter, worked with Anthony Seldon particularly on the brilliant Blair Unbound. His book is thorough, but it is a terrific read, especially for anyone wanting the story behind the scenes. Some 120 wonderfully candid interviews, many with Conservative apparatchiks, create a chilling portrait of Central Office under Hague and IDS doing its best to throttle itself. My only quibble is that background events are sketchy, making it too much of a soap opera and less like the Shakespearean tragedy it really was.
Bale, from the University of Sussex, relies less on interviewees but places his narrative firmly in context, with opinion polls and independent research from the Political Studies Association. This is a simply brilliant book, written with wit and insight; his judgments are spot-on. Each time a new leader began with moderate remarks to reposition the party closer to the centre ground on which British elections are won. Each time the furies howled with rage, and the leader backed off. Three elections in a row, the Tories sounded as mad, crude and cruel as before. Each time Mr Blair could destroy them, easily. Until now.
As Bale says, it probably needed Thatcher to be transformed “from a constantly carping critic into a frail old lady” before change would stick; then, “as the party ticked off the years between 1997 and 2005, exhaustion gave way first to frustration and finally to hunger”. Whether it is hungry enough we’ll see on May 6.
Phillip Blond is another kettle of fish. Or more precisely, he’s nuts. Cameron’s people, one hears, are quite taken with him. They shouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole. Blond’s thesis of “Progressive Conservatism” is a weird mixture of romanticism, cod history and mangled statistics; William Cobbett meets Milton Friedman and Archbishop Tutu, with a dash of Enoch Powell. The Industrial Revolution destroyed the wholesome small communities of rural England. Socialism brought in the over-developed State. Thatcherism led to unrestrained markets and to libertarianism. Selfishness and materialism now rule and everyone is unhappy. Yes, up to a point. But then what?
To restore our broken society we must have values. He means Christianity, of a noticeably right-wing kind, but he’s too cowardly to say so. We must abjure large-scale business such as Tesco (pardon?). At least I think that’s what he is saying; the prose is ghastly: “In this way a belief in the transcendent idea of the good alone allows both objectivity about values and a liberal openness to free discussion of value.” Work it out for yourself; better still, don’t bother.
Instead, try Dave Cameron’s Schooldays for jolly fictional japes. Young Dave is sent out from Eton to find Mike Hunt (say it fast) and is beaten up; the pain makes the lad quite excited. Coles, an Old Etonian, probably still bears the stripes himself. You could say it helps to explain the real Dave’s determination to whip us into shape. We shall see.
Back from the Brink by Peter Snowdon (Harper Press, £14.99; Buy this book; 352pp)
The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron by Tim Bale (Polity, £25; Buy this book; 504pp)
Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It by Phillip Blond (Faber and Faber, £12.99; Buy this book; 309pp)
Dave Cameron’s Schooldays by Bill Coles (Legend, £7.99; Buy this book; 253pp)