If you are taking even a cursory interest in British politics over the next few weeks, there are a few phrases which you should be familiar with. ‘We must claim the centre ground’; ‘Modernisation’; ‘Opportunity for the many and not the few’; ‘Radical reform’; ‘Equality’; ‘Change’; ‘Renewal’; ‘Compassion’; to name but a few. I quote directly from Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference at the end of September, in which he attempted to illustrate his core beliefs and plans for the next few years. However, the reason for giving these phrases was not to talk about Tony Blair; it was to talk about the impending Tory leadership contest. It may interest you to know that every single one of these very phrases, or very close derivations of these, was used in David Davis’ recent speech on his vision of ‘Modern Conservatism in the 21st century’. Most of them could be found in David Cameron’s speech at his campaign launch only last week. They all can be found many times over in Ken Clarke’s statements, interviews, and speeches in recent months. These men are, at the point of writing, the three main contenders for the Conservative Party leadership.What has become plainly obvious is that they are trying to attract support by using the same language and sentiments as the dominant and centrist Tony Blair. I am not trying to suggest that past leadership candidates, of any party, have not claimed to want to move the party into the centre ground of politics – most do – but the centre ground of politics was there long before Blair. What I mean is that there has been a quite deliberate shift to using ‘Blairite’ rhetoric in an attempt by the candidates to show that they are true centrist politicians, ie not prisoners of the Tories’ strong right wing. This illustrates the level to which New Labour has changed political discourse in Britain. Blair, for all his foibles, has skilfully managed to articulate the hopes, opinions, and aspirations of the majority of people in this country. That is why a majority of the middle class who used to call themselves Conservatives has voted for him over the past 8 years. Previously, Tory leadership candidates earned their spurs by saying how much they hated New Labour and its ideas. Now, they have finally realised what it will take to win: accept that there is a new political landscape, set by New Labour, and shape their message accordingly.Tory leaders understand that they need to do what Labour did in the early 1990’s after Thatcher: a painful modernising process, ignoring the extreme section in the party, adapting the Party’s policies and beliefs to the current political climate – the temperature of which had been changed by Blair while as PM. Therefore, we are beginning to see the seeds of recovery for the party that used to be called ‘the natural party of government’.Now the difficult part: who should the party choose for leader and trust to carry through the difficult renewal of the party? David Davis is the front runner, and undoubtedly a man of the right from the IDS and William Hague camp, despite now trying to convince us that he has been a centrist all along. He definitely has advantages: in particular, his working class background of having grown up on a council estate gives him credentials that Ken Clarke and David Cameron do not have. His right wing background doesn’t mean that he isn’t sincere about trying to change the party’s message, but it does mean that his reform will be slow, cautious, and could possibly run into trouble if his main backers, the party’s right wing, decide that he is no longer ‘one of them’. David Cameron is the newcomer. At only 38 years old, and having sat in the Commons for only 4 years, he is appealing, photogenic and certainly very able. He is certainly a true moderniser, and would also be more genuinely committed and able to change the party’s appeal than Davis, and I believe he has the potential to be a great Prime Minister in the future. However, he is very short on political experience, and it must be remembered that since the party started electing their leader in 1965, they have always chosen a candidate from a lower middle class or working class background: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague, IDS, Howard. The party’s sensitivity to choosing a ‘toff ’ as leader may make things even more difficult for him, the urbane Old Etonian. Now that Portillo has dropped out of a political career, Ken Clarke is the last remaining ‘big beast’ of the party. An earthy and charismatic heavyweight, fond of his pints and cigars, he has long been a proponent of centrist ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, and is the only candidate who has long said that the party should learn lessons from New Labour’s success. He is the figure most popular with the public, especially with the middle class swing voters who deserted the party for Tony Blair; one might think that the party would be mad not to choose such a man. His main problem among party members, who, despite Michael Howard’s best efforts, have the final say after MPs have whittled the choice down to two candidates, remains his enthusiasm for Europe: he would be leading a wildly Eurosceptic party, and the shadow of the disastrous in-fighting of the Major years looms over this scenario.Whether the party can get over this single aspect of Kenneth Clarke’s politics and pick the one man who might actually stand a chance of beating Labour at the next election, only time will tell us.
ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005