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11 October 1999

Shock: Tories are (quite) united

The commentators have got it wrong on both the party leaders, argues Steve Richards after the Bourne

By Steve Richards

Party conferences are usually forgotten as soon as the politicians head home – sometimes, indeed, before they have even left the seaside. Who can remember Tony Blair’s “giving age” or William Hague’s vacuous “British way”, a slogan he dropped almost as soon as the words had left his mouth?

But this conference season has been different. Like the Tory conference in 1992 when the scale of the divisions over Europe became tangible for the first time, or the Labour conference in 1994 when Blair pledged to scrap Clause Four, the ripples from the early autumnal gatherings will make waves for some time to come. Already politics looks very different compared with three weeks ago.

This is not to say that Britain is living through a revolution, as our political leaders would have us believe. Blair returned from holiday to proclaim himself a revolutionary on more than 20 occasions in a single newspaper interview, though by the time he spoke to his party’s conference he had become a progressive, rather than a revolutionary, which is a little closer to the mark. A few days later, in Blackpool, William Hague launched his “common-sense revolution”, which is presumably the opposite of a silly revolution. But Hague is no more of a revolutionary than Blair. Both men, dazzled by the Thatcher years, regard conviction as the elixir of modern politics. Yet neither quite knows how to follow her reshaping of the political landscape. As the Conservative frontbencher Alan Duncan asked in an interview with me last May: “What do we do for an encore?” The interview wrecked Duncan’s chances of joining the shadow cabinet, but he posed the right question. Behind their bold language, both the party leaders are still far from sure of the answer.

The reaction to Blair’s “progressives” versus “conservatives” speech in Bournemouth has been as revealing as the speech itself. Much of it has been negative, more so than is usual for a Blair speech. The Telegraph was horrified and the Mail alarmed. Former Thatcherites who had considered themselves to be Blairites, without changing any of their views en route, twitched a little nervously. Equally revealing were the uneasy reactions of those newspapers and columnists who consistently beat the new Labour drum. Many journalists, and some ministers, expressed concern about the allegedly fascistic undertone, the intolerance towards minorities.

This seems to me to be a misreading of Blair’s speech. Triumphalism, the wiping away of vulnerable opponents, is the least of Labour’s problems. If only opponents were swatted away more confidently, some might say. Caution rather than arrogance remains new Labour’s prevailing characteristic, as it always has been.

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Take the case of the downtrodden fox-hunters. In reality they will be allowed to hunt foxes for several years to come. An exhausted Blair unintentionally raised the issue on the BBC’s Question Time in the summer. A more focused Blair will ensure now that no legislative time for such a confrontational venture will be found this side of an election. That other threatened species, the Eurosceptics, can relax as well. There will be no referendum on a single currency for some time. As for an exclusive triumphalism, Chris Patten has been in charge of the RUC’s fate, Lord Wakeham is reflecting on the future of the second chamber, David Mellor has an influence on football’s future. There is plenty of room in Blair’s big tent.

All this strikes me as very different to the triumphalism of Margaret Thatcher, who removed a tier of local government in one stroke because it happened to be run by Labour councils. Nor do I recall the doting pro-Thatcher columnists pleading caution as she blew her enemies apart. In spite of Labour’s landslide the centre-left remains on the defensive, both in the media and in government.

The Tories used to drape themselves in the Union Jack with unrestrained bravado. Yet when Labour tries to become the one-nation party, commentators start fretting over the people who will be left behind even when, in reality, they will not be left behind at all. At least not until the second term has been safely secured.

None the less Blair’s speech was a change of gear, revealing a more complex political figure. The widespread complaints that it lacked substance do not stand up. The policy objectives – ranging from full employment to dentists on the NHS, as well as a Britain being fully engaged in Europe – have radical, if not exactly revolutionary, implications. The single currency may have been pushed into the longish grass, but Blair came across clearly as a pro-European. And he was surely right to argue that, if Labour is to achieve a more effective delivery of public services, without necessarily resorting to privatisation, the government must take on conservatism in the public sector as well as elsewhere. Those Blairites who are Eurosceptics and those who regard privatisation of public services as an automatic panacea twitched with good reason.

Why did Blair seek to narrow the broad dividing lines a little? Obviously it was done partly to give traditional supporters a greater sense of purpose. But I suspect the Prime Minister, furious at the Tories’ attitude to Northern Ireland, riled by the Daily Telegraph agenda, wanted to loosen his straitjacket a little. His relaxed demeanour in the days that followed, in spite of the flak, reminded me of Gordon Brown after he announced his spending plans for health and education in the summer of 1998. For once Brown was talking about how he could improve schools and hospitals after years of melancholic prudence. For once Blair decided to make a speech that would annoy more than the left of his party and he felt better for it.

Not that he took much of a risk. There were no hostages to fortune in terms of policy announcements. This was not the case at the Conservative conference, where there was a deluge of policies when before there were virtually none.

I have always argued that Hague does not face a political situation as daunting as that which confronted Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock, and this conference confirmed it. Two years after Labour was booted out of power in 1979, the party was split on every issue of the moment. In Blackpool that was not the case.

In spite of the lurid headlines, the Tories are more united than they have been for years. On Europe they are probably more united than Labour. After speaking to activists I would estimate that 95 per cent of them are Eurosceptics, opposed to the single currency. Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke can command the attention of the media but, in the Tory landscape, they are Titans in the wilderness. Heseltine’s fringe meeting, where he was almost drowned out by the hum of Eurosceptics in the neighbouring room, symbolised his position in the party.

Hague therefore has a chance to define his party clearly and he does so with the support of several influential newspapers, a privilege never granted Kinnock or Foot. He has, for example, been able to conduct a policy review without a murmur of internal protest. Peter Lilley supports the public sector? Oh well, that’s quite straightforward, we’ll sack him. So Lilley, theoretically in charge of the review, leaves and months later a document bulging with policies still descends from the deep blue skies of Blackpool as if from nowhere. If Kinnock had wanted to change his party’s policies on B roads in Ipswich there would have been at least a year-long row before it happened. The Conservatives remain a relatively easy party to lead.

But inadvertently Hague’s common-sense revolution reveals the fatalistic strategic thinking behind his eerily calm facade. Or, at least, one policy does. The pledge to reduce the burden of taxation in the next parliament has a smack of desperation about it. With his background Hague will know better than most that such a promise cannot be credibly made. He was in the Treasury when Norman Lamont battled with recession and was forced to put up taxes. His next job was as a social security minister who watched Peter Lilley, the secretary of state, struggling and failing to contain the welfare budget. Hague knows that welfare budgets rise largely because of the increasing elderly population. New “measures” to attack fraud, that old familiar cry, will not produce great savings.

In other words, Hague knows his tax pledge is almost certainly unattainable. So he is making it on the assumption he will not have to carry it out. His document is aimed at bolstering the Conservative vote, to narrow the gap with Labour. In this it may succeed, for Thatcherite, tax-cutting populism has worked before and has never, as a matter of principle, been successfully challenged by the tax cutters from new Labour.

Which brings us to the gaping void in this otherwise important conference season. How will Labour ministers rise to the opportunity which nearly everyone in Blackpool believes to be theirs? There will be a second term, but for now foxes are slaughtered, the public services flounder, Britain stays out of the single currency, England lacks a political voice in a devolved Britain and the House of Lords still sits. How will Blair exploit what may turn out to be a decade in power?

He showed more of himself in Bournemouth but he failed to answer that question.

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