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Let the blood-letting begin

The Conservative Party must change radically if it is ever to gain power again

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Who lost the 1997 general election?

Or, to put that another way, who won?

We know this! Tony Blair. And how? New Labour, obviously. Along with the Third Way, Clintonian campaigning techniques, the red rose, “Bobby”, Philip Gould and The Unfinished Revolution, a paradoxically improving economy, Gordon, China, Granita.

Much as this might read as a man in his 50s having a stroke, it’s also a narrative. Which, for some time now, people have grimly asserted Sir Keir Starmer lacks. How could he possibly win without one of those? Quite handily, it’s turning out.

Not that it didn’t take some sneering to knock away the idea that oppositions somehow win elections rather than governments always, always, always losing them. Snide people had to caw about Labour’s lead being soft, just in case any pundits were tempted to believe this.

Maybe, in the shadow of Bruce Anderson, who cheerfully assured his readers before the 1997 election that the only point at issue was how large John Major’s majority was going to be, journalists have improved — but politicians certainly haven’t.

For the Tory party, the consequence of being humiliatingly tumbled into opposition by the worst-performing leader in their democratic history will be the asking of this question, “Whose fault was it?” Amazingly, I can safely predict, it won’t just be two short names given as the answer.

One of the reasons to believe this is because 1997 now isn’t the fault of John Major and his shabby, incompetent government. Entitled princes of the party, such as Major himself, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke never accepted personal responsibility for leading their followers into such an epic disaster. Their claims almost 30 years ago that, actually, the voters were passing judgement on Bill Cash or Barry Legg were as patently incredible then as they should still be now.

Back in 1997, to win the leadership election even a soul as stolid as William Hague came up with the feline smear of “constantly shifting fudge” to describe Major’s tawdry and risible administration.

From there, we can have a Tory narrative of our own. Hague became the implausible champion of the traditionalists against the “modernisers” who undermined him at every turn (we’d mention names like Francis Maude, Michael Portillo, Robbie Gibb, Mark MacGregor, Douglas “Nadine” Smith and Michael “Kemi” Gove, if we were that way inclined).

Then Hague lost, and somehow Iain Duncan Smith won. But IDS was incapable, so Michael Howard was installed, but then he lost. And finally, happily ever Osborne, Dave became leader. Not despite, but because he went to a good school.

Cameron then failed to win an election against a man who was then the most unpopular prime minister in history — one so weak that even Andrew Marr, as political editor of the BBC, could be baited by the internet into asking, “Gordon, are you mad and on drugs for it?”

The Tory party is going nowhere: it won’t be killed and it won’t be replaced

But what did this result mean? A Tory government with the liberal majority Cameron, Osborne and Gove had failed to get selected and elected. Happy days.

Then the #thirteenplusyears happened.

It would be unkind to bring to mind the arguments Tories inside and outside parliament made in favour of Rishi Sunak becoming leader in 2022, misfortunes such as his inability to win a contest against even Liz Truss notwithstanding. But chiefly because it would be so space-consuming on this short and unhappy page as so many made them. So many grown-ups. So here we all are.

As we get ready for the blame game which will underpin every leadership campaign after the general election, there are two key things to remember. The first and most important is that the Tory party is going nowhere: it won’t be killed and it won’t be replaced.

The contender who makes the arguments which win the next Tory leadership election will control the party that will form the government of this country after Labour eventually loses. Thinking any other party will emerge to do so is fantasy.

The second is why the Tories lost despite everything that was once in their favour — from Corbyn and the Brexit climacteric to a distracting war in Ukraine. All now tears in rain.

Most tellingly, why have the Tories not undone New Labour’s settlement? Answer: because they didn’t want to. Cameron, Osborne and Gove agreed with it, and a fatal mass of the candidates they selected between 2005–2016 and — thanks, Dougie Smith — from 2019 onwards think likewise. That’s why the Equality Act was never touched.

You’ll commonly hear near Tufton Street a question like this: “Why don’t we have our own Equality Act? Why isn’t there something we could lumber Labour with in our dying days (‘from hell’s heart I stab at thee’)”?

The answer is why “we” have lost.

Note, the question is, what could the Conservatives lumber Labour with? Not, what Tory internal coalition could you assemble before the election to pass something? Not, what is the “something” which Labour wouldn’t simply, contemptuously remove post-election? But what does the Tory party want to do which the Labour party won’t do?

As currently constituted, the Tory party is going to need to lose a lot more people if it’s ever to win power again. Because most of them don’t appear to want it.

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