Tuesday, October 28, 2003

This Blog is supposed to be concerned with both British and South African issues although, given the welter of interesting stories coming out of South Africa at the moment, the dearth of British related blogging is perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, its never too late to start and on that score I draw your attention to the BBCs top story of the hour: The challenge to Iain Duncan-Smiths leadership of the Tories..

IDS will probably go down in history as the worst leader of the Conservative party of the last 100 years. Not only did he fail to win an election, he failed even to survive for long enough to face an election (this is assuming he loses the leadership challenge, which I think he will). He possessed all of William Hague's faults and contrived, somehow, to add a few that Hague did not possess: lack of political nous, lack of savvy in Parliament and lack of any discernible intelligence. Nevertheless, Hague must carry some of the can for IDS's presence at the helm of the Tories. If Hague hadn't fiddled with the leadership election process, IDS would not have ended up being leader. Instead, its possible that the Tories would have had Michael Portillo who, to my mind, is still the only man with a real chance of leading the Tories to victory in 7 years time (the Tories will lose the next election regardless of who their leader is). Hague's changes were designed, ironically enough, to make leadership challenges more difficult, but the nett result was to put the question of the leadership to rank and file party members. It bears pointing out that the average Tory party member is in her 60s and so conservative on most issues as to be out of touch with the feelings of the rest of the country. Thus, as my grandmother put it,'...we all voted for IDS because the alternative was that ghastly lager drinking euro-phile Kenneth Clarke.' Portillo was at that stage already out of the running having put himself beyond the pale with the party membership by admitting to a series of homosexual relationships whilst up at Cambridge.

Portillo, to my mind, is still a worthy candidate. He impressed me, when I heard him speak last year, by suggesting that if the Tories were ever to win again they would have to realise that the commitment to liberty and freedom went beyond just encouraging laissez-faire capitalism and included getting out of the bedroom, reducing the power of the state and withdrawing from the whole communitarian enterprise. Surprisingly, this is not something the Tories have been very good at. Even under Thatcher, the Conservatives remained wedded to the idea of a strong, paternalistic state. The Conservatives have always seen the state as the guardian of British values and morals and the protector of Britain's history and heritage. That may have worked in the 1950s, it may even have been tolerated, through gritted teeth in the 80s but it certainly wont hold water in the 21st century. Very few of the Tory leadership seems to realise this, though which is why I say I was impressed with Michael Portillo when I heard him.

Nonetheless, its unlikely that Portillo will make a run for the leadership. Without a shadow cabinet position from which to make his bid it's unlikely that he'd even be able to garner much of the parliamentary party's support. So who else? The name that is being bandied about is Michael Howard, the man of whom Ann Widdecombe, rather unfairly, said she discerned, '...something of the night.' Howard is nevertheless an impressive figure, he has lots of experience (he was Home-Secretary under John Major), he has a sharp and analytical mind (witness the off-the-cuff forensic analysis that he performed on Gordon Brown's budget this year) and, perhaps most importantly, he seems to have a lot of support within the party. The problem with Howard is that he represents the Tory party of yesterday. No doubt he would say he has moved with the times but there is something about him, a certain arrogance perhaps, possibly some of that old style paternalism, which doesn't bode well for the future. And make no mistake the Tories have a monumental task ahead of them if they are to convince the electorate that they've moved on.

Is Howard a capable man, who would make a decent PM? Yes, I think he is. Is he the man to lead a comprehensive rank and file overhaul of the Tories and their image? No, I don't think so. So if Howard is elected leader, the Tories will still go down heavily at the next election and they will fail to make any real headway in the years that follow. Perhaps we can look forward to another leadership challenge in around 4/5 years time as the Tories realise that they are about to lose a record 4th election. If that happens they will have all but consigned themselves to the dustbin of history. The next couple of days will be interesting, they may well mark the point at which the Conservatives finally get there act together. On the other hand, future historians may see this as the point at which their decline became irreversible...


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