I’m on the ITV boat moored at the London Eye. We’ve just won Putney. So Blair’s going to get a bloody nose, the Lib Dems may have something to celebrate, and Michael Howard will have a smile on his face. It could be a long and very enjoyable night.
Let’s be clear about this. The electoral arithmetic was always against us: even if the Tories beat Labour in the popular vote, Blair would still have a majority of more than 60. Try explaining that to newly democratised Iraq or Romania. When this happened before, in 1951 and 1974, only a handful of seats were involved, whereas this year it was bucketloads. And everyone from Michael Howard down knew it.
So Tory top brass never expected to win overall. At the start they got it so wrong. “Vote Blair and you’ll get Brown!” was the first Tory slogan. Whoops . . . apparently it did not occur to our spin-doctors that many Labourites would hold their noses and do exactly that. Brown is seen as an asset: dour, tough, committed. We should have jumped harder on his boast about “fifty quarters of economic growth”, as some of us can do the arithmetic and can claim the credit. But Brown knew when to shut up. Asked if he would have gone to war in Iraq, he gave his shortest speech yet: “Yes.” Then he turned to the PM, signal-ling Blair to continue for him. Nuff said.
The lack of a Tory agenda was frustrating. “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” was great – but apart from pointing an accurately aimed finger at the Prime Minister’s mistakes and misrepresentations (no, I won’t use that word liar; you can do that for yourselves), it left the public none the wiser as to what the Tories would do instead. “Better education” is an aspiration, not a policy. “Cleaner hospitals” – I mean, puhlease. “Clean hospitals” would have been a starter, but the debate homed in on NHS financing methods, on which the Tory response was defensive. “More police” served as a reminder that Howard had hardly been the most admi-red Home Secretary. On “lower taxes” the Tories were cowardly. And the pension proposals that emerged late in the campaign felt inadequate for such a vast topic.
Did that Aussie guru Lynton Crosby earn his dosh? “Dog-whistle” topics such as immigration did bring some hounds to heel and, despite predictions, did not put many voters off. God bless the British! In rejecting the nastier side of xenophobia they demonstrated exactly why so many migrants, legal and otherwise, find safe haven in this country. Not everyone, however, is welcome; watch out for tighter controls in the new parliament.
As for the leader: Howard bounced through the campaign like a man half his age. I reckon he did a good job, considering. YouGov asked anti-Tory voters why they were hostile. Sixty-eight per cent mentioned Howard’s reputation, but the top-scoring reason, given by 78 per cent, was “the party’s record on such things as the poll tax, and the economy when they were in power”. It’s not him, it’s them. Yet memories are getting shorter.
So Howard should stay put, as Neil Kinnock did in 1987. It doesn’t feel like a Labour win but a Tory advance, if not yet victory. The boundaries have to change sooner or later, and not just those defining constituencies. Conservatives can now get down to serious research and start thinking the unthinkable, as they did after 1945 and 1974. New Toryism has to be different. How about flat-rate tax, which is transforming the economies of eastern Europe? How about encouraging young candidates to take over? How about plugging private enterprise, instead of aping the government over public services? A bonfire of controls and targets? Freedom, responsibility and pride in achievement?
Think about it, Michael. Next time, it might work.