How the PM recruited for the Tories

Very much like the Old Contemptibles, the Conservatives are now rejoicing in an enemy's insult

There is a growing feeling among that endangered species called the Conservative rank and file that a corner has been turned. It has been turned in the month since the party conference season. What is more, it has been turned without any help from the leaders of the party themselves, but in fulfilment of one of the oldest adages in modern politics: that oppositions do not win support, but governments lose it.

Not even the most gung-ho Tories expect the government to lose the next election, but they do now expect their own party to lose it by far less of a margin than they thought would be the case even six weeks ago. And all this has been accomplished by one sound-bite of the Prime Minister's: "the forces of conservatism".

Breaking the habit of several years, I recently ventured into the sort of Friday-night constituency Conservative meeting to be found anywhere in the land - anywhere except, perhaps, Kensington and Chelsea, where the Range Rovers have left for Gloucestershire long before that time of the evening. The mood was still a little subdued - they are not wild about young Hague, even though he is trying so hard, and they are having trouble finding people to pay a membership sub - but it no longer had that old familiar edge of desperation. As I soon found, after chatting to this remnant of the faithful for half an hour, the "forces of conservatism" speech had achieved something William Hague and his lacklustre bunch of cronies have failed to do: it has at last united the Conservative Party.

Now I am pretty sure that this was not Tony Blair's intention when he made his speech. It seemed to me, on that blustery September afternoon, that the speech he had made was what, from the strict point of view of managing his own party, was required. He was in the third year of a parliament. He was pushing through a programme of reforms that take on vested interests in his own movement just as vigorously, in many respects, as Margaret Thatcher took on in hers 20 years ago. He had to have some sort of bone to chuck to his own grass roots, to the thousands of Labour supporters who have not yet put their noses in the trough of the new prosperity and for whom air-cured salami and sun-dried tomatoes are not part of the diet. And there is no surer way for a Labour leader to ingratiate himself with them than to give the Tories a damned good kicking.

However, this might not, on reflection, have been the best way to do it. Forget, for the moment, that much of what the Blair government has done would, until 1997, have qualified for the label "conservative": hypocrisy comes with the rations in politics. Where the Prime Minister appears to have miscalculated is that he has undeniably helped to cohere and galvanise the previously dismembered legions of his opponents, who now feel that Blair has it in for them.

The average Tory activist is an ordinary, middle-class person of predominantly decent characteristics. He or she might have thought, in 1964, that Nelson Mandela should not have engaged in terrorism, but then would have shaken off any views about the justifiability of his imprisonment long before he left Robben Island. They would not have raised a glass to the assassination of Martin Luther King and would certainly not have taken satisfaction from the murder of Stephen Lawrence: so they took it rather personally when (politics being about perception) they felt that Blair was accusing them of doing just that.

Blair's people defend his approach as follows: that it was necessary for him to prepare the ground to take on the "conservative" elements in the public services and trade unions, not least the doctors and the teachers. That may well be the case, but it is not how his attack has been interpreted by his opponents. He has given them a common purpose. Nothing raises more of a laugh at Tory meetings now than someone declaring himself to be one of the "forces of conservatism". It is a bit like the Old Contemptibles - named after the Kaiser, in 1914, called the British Expeditionary Force "a contemptible little army" - rejoicing in the stigma placed upon them by the enemy.

The other problem might strike Blair closer to home. There were a lot of people who voted for him in 1997 who had for several elections before that voted Conservative. They felt able to vote for him because he seemed, well, pretty conservative himself - all that stuff about not putting up taxes, being the party of business, tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. They will not have liked being accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence either, because although they voted Labour - or, as they no doubt justify it, "new Labour" - they still, in those last moments before consciousness is turned off in the dark each evening, think of themselves as conservative. They might, as a result of the new rhetoric, find it just a little bit harder to vote the same way next time. Some of them might even go home to Hague; and the millions of abstainers, who really won the last election for Labour, will now feel that politics has been repolarised for them, and they know which pole they are heading for.

You can bet your life the speech Blair makes at Brighton next autumn, with a general election perhaps just seven or eight months away, will be nothing like the one he made further along the coast six weeks ago. There will be no descent, then, into the politics of tribalism: there will be hints of tax-cutting, radical Thatcher-style reform of the vested interests, and talk of improving the competitive advantages of our capitalist enterprises: but by then a lot of the damage done by the Bournemouth speech may have taken root. His activities as a recruiting sergeant for the Conservative cause, unintentional though they were, might have been just a little too successful. If he has any sense, he will direct his fire elsewhere, and quickly. He should not underestimate the effect his words have had on his hitherto beleaguered opponents: and short of the sort of earthquake in the opposition that would follow on from Michael Portillo losing Kensington and Chelsea, it is hard to see how the corner he has allowed them to turn can easily be turned back again.

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