So, Michael Howard has made his first speech to Conference as party leader.
Let me make a few things clear. Firstly, I will never vote for a party that is opposed to the euro in the way that the Tories currently are. I have to vote for a government that is going to work in the best interests of me, my business and (soon) my family. For someone that runs a small business that trades across the whole of the EU, membership of the euro is an instrinsic part of that.
Secondly, my personal politics are of the centre, occasionally leaning out to the left on some issues, at other times leaning out to the right – but, on the whole, I’m a centrist. I’ve never approved of Labour’s hand-cash-to-anyone-that-asks-for-it tax-and-spend theories; nor have I liked the Tory don’t-tax-and-don’t-spend theories which seem sometimes to go too far the other way; and I feel a little uncomfortable with some of the micro-meddling that the LibDems propose (ban Chelsea tractors from the school run? too populist and not well conceived).
Thirdly, I firmly believe that this country needs effective government, but also effective opposition. In the past, that rôle has rotated back and forth between the Tories and the Labour party. Increasingly, it looks like the LibDems are going to become the main party of opposition – a fact that has not been helped by the Tories’ adoption of Howard’s Wrong Way.
As I see it, there are three things wrong with Howard’s Wrong Way:
- Firstly, the lurch to the right. When Michael Howard was made leader of the Conservative party, he promised to create an inclusive party of the centre. This, to my mind, was exactly what was needed in the Tory party if they were to stand a realistic chance of being elected. Instead, and in a mildly panicked reaction to the likes of UKIP, we’ve seen a sudden move to the right, particularly to unnecessarily strong and divisive euro-scepticism, not to mention a drift to the right in other policy areas (although it is hard to imagine how any home secretary could be further to the right than Blunkett). I think that this is an over-reaction, and creating "clear blue water" only puts you further from the majority of voters (most of whom, I believe, are centrists too) and gives you more sea in which to drown yourself.
- Secondly, the desperate desire to be trusted which is likely to come round and bite them on the backside. Howard says that he selects people for his shadow cabinet on the basis of their ability to do the job, and failure to achieve or toe the line will result in dismissal. This is very dangerous, in my view, and I would have expected Howard to know better, having served in John Major’s cabinet which was steadily picked apart by a combination of the human failings of its members and the rabid desire of the gutter press to have a poke at each mnister in turn. Sometimes, for reasons of unity or simply to reflect difficult conditions, it is the PM’s lot to keep within his cabinet people that have not reached targets that have been set. Blair has shown this by keeping Prescott on board for all this time – Prescott has not been a shining example in all the positions he has held since 1997, but Blair needs him in order to keep the Labour party more-or-less together and pulling in the same direction. The Tories are well known for certain divisions, just as much as Labour – it may well be the case that it is prudent for Howard to keep on board certain members who are (for example) europhile or eurosceptic in the future, even if their performance in cabinet is not all that it might be.
- Thirdly, the continuing policy of making a policy out of having no policies. Whilst the rationale for such a standpoint (wait and see what the economic climate brings, wait and see what the incumbents do between now and the next election) appears valid and sound, I think that the voters as a whole will wonder what exactly the Tories stand for, what they believe in and, more importantly, what exactly they will do once they get into office (if they do). Having their "timetable for change" doesn’t show any long term or even medium term ideas – in fact, it only just covers the first month. The electorate are not fools – we live in a consumer society, and we like to know what we’re getting for our money, or our vote.
The consequences of all this? Well, I don’t see the current government losing the next election – not because there is little wrong with them (don’t get me started on listing the things that are wrong with the current government!), but more because their traditional foes are not strong enough to win, veering as they are from being on the far right to being without policy. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming foe still does not have enough voter clout or governmental experience to carry it off. What we may see, though, is a much-reduced majority for the incumbent and a new party leading the opposition – both good things, as it will reduce the arrogant surety of the current leaders as well as providing some teeth-cutting experience for the current third party.
Where it will leave the Tories is another matter entirely. Bring on Boris?