A party at war with itself

As the Tories prepare themselves for their annual conference, Simon Hefferdespairs of their lacklust

In the theatre of the absurd that will be Blackpool next week, the Conservative Party should remember one thing above all others. The last time it defended a seat, at Eddisbury in July, it won by a pitiful 1,600 votes. Had the United Kingdom Independence Party fielded a candidate, just a month after winning three seats in the European Parliamentary elections, Labour would almost certainly have won the seat. That is the state of the Conservatives' popularity today.

The balance sheet this year is even more depressing than last. At least in October 1998, when the Tories found themselves 25 percentage points behind in the polls, they could argue that they had a newish leader who was still finding his feet, a largely inexperienced shadow cabinet and were early on in the policy-making process. They were also two and a half years from a general election. Now they are only one and a half years away. Such policies as they have are unmemorable and incoherent. Their leader is such a laughing-stock that they have to take questions about him off the list which they ask their focus groups for fear of the negative reaction they provoke. And they are still 25 points behind in the polls.

On the rare occasions when a member of the shadow cabinet does well - such as John Redwood when he was shadowing trade or Iain Duncan-Smith at defence - the response of the leader's friends is to brief an obedient press that those men are for the chop. It hasn't turned out to be true - yet - but it is hardly helpful. It does, however, sum up why nothing has changed in the Conservative Party. It is still an organisation stuffed with mediocrities, at war with themselves - and they have been so for some time, as evidenced by the Major-Lamont diaries, unhelpfully published this week - who believe their own publicity and are obsessed with trivialities, irrelevances and private vanities.

We had a master-class in these lunacies at the end of September, first with the Portillo saga, and then when the Nott Commission on the single currency delivered its predictable verdict that the euro was a bad idea. This was not a cause for amazement just because the group had been packed with Eurosceptics, who knew what was expected of them. It also appears to be the view now taken by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which is why they are running away from the issue, and why Brown speaks of the referendum on entry as being not inevitable for the the next parliament.

What irritated so many Tories was that they couldn't care less about the economic rights or wrongs of the project. For them, it is an issue of sovereignty, and they expect their leaders to see this with equal clarity. That is why they regard Hague's "wait and see" policy as cowardly and preposterous. They seethe with contempt at any shadow politician who tries to enunciate it, for he is either stupid or thinks they are. They know the constitutional objections will be the same in seven years' time (or whenever it is that Hague's moratorium comes to an end) as they are now. And all they want is for Hague to admit this obvious and necessary point.

Which brings us back to the near debacle in Eddisbury. The UK Independence Party, though the Tories will not admit it, is the real reason the party obstinately refuses to recover. By getting 11 or 12 per cent in June's elections, it showed itself not just as a force to be reckoned with, but as one taking on the Tories from the populist right. This is fatal for Hague and his friends. There are still too many of what John Redwood, when he sought the leadership in 1997, called the missing four million - those who voted Tory in 1992, but could not bear to at the election after that. Those who have gone anywhere have gone to the UKIP, attracted by its uncompromisingly Powellite anti-European message. Now they hear that Margaret Thatcher, while not deserting her party, privately agrees with them. For so long as the Tories are maintaining their utterly dishonest and craven policy on Europe, they will not get those voters back. No wonder party membership remains obstinately low at under 350,000.

That is but one of their problems. Hague, as well as becoming a national figure of fun himself - he is now the political equivalent of Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards - has a woefully underperforming shadow cabinet. Few can name his foreign affairs spokesman (he is someone called John Maples, whom nobody could name when he had his last job, shadowing defence during the Kosovo war). Francis Maude, the shadow chancellor, is completely unable to get a handle on the ultra-monetarist policy Eddie George runs on behalf of Gordon Brown. John Redwood clearly resents his sideways move to transport, when he was doing an excellent job at trade, and it is hard to blame him. As with the Maples problem, no one can remember the name of his successor. Whenever the government finds itself in trouble - such as with the underfunding of what used to be grant-maintained schools or lengthening waiting-lists - it is Her Majesty's press, not Her Majesty's opposition, that administers the most authoritative kickings, while inarticulate and anonymous halfwits in the shadow government flounder around helplessly. It is almost becoming painful to watch, though one is consoled by the knowledge that, after what these people did to our country under the Major terror, they have not yet suffered enough.

It might, perhaps, help if they actually believed in something; but most of them, former research assistants largely unemployable in any other walk of life, believe only in the miracle that left them in parliament when so many of their comrades died on the battlefield in May 1997. Whatever one thinks of traditional Conservative values, they did at least bind the party together and give it a coherent appeal. Now the remnants of the party appear almost entirely to have disconnected (to use a phrase beloved of Charles Kennedy) from the mass who would like to vote for them.

The events in the Winter Gardens at Blackpool will barely be worth watching. The delusion, sycophancy and all the other little absurdities that had to be tolerated when the party was on top have no place now it is a basket-case. All it can do is copy Labour: legions of focus groups, which at a stroke destroy the notion that there is anyone left at the top who knows how to lead; and now, we read, armies of spin-doctors, paid to tell the media and, by way of them, the nation that we are all severely mistaken, and that the party really is doing a brilliant job.

Labour reinvented itself to fit in with the new, free-market- driven consensus that the country had grown used to. Plainly the Tories are trying a little reinvention of their own. But as what? Don't they know that what is supposed to make them different is that they express some sort of adherence to principle? Instead, the private club of shadow ministers and MPs moves ever more firmly up its own arse and wonders why it is so impossible to see any light at the end of that particular tunnel. The people could tell them, but for all their new love of focus groups, they still don't know how to listen.

The Tories used to think it was a joke when people said to them: "You are going about it the right way to lose the next election even more heavily than you lost the last one." Who would dismiss that prediction now?

The writer, a columnist for the "Daily Mail", is our Conservative Party correspondent