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					The Conservatives: Can they win the next election?
'Even during the most difficult months of this government's life, the Conservatives have not managed
to establish any meaningful lead in the opinion polls.' Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 1st August 2004.

'The Conservative Party has no need of focus groups to tell it what middle England is thinking.
It merely needs to know what its members and their families are thinking.' David Willets, 1997.

Rawnsley's mordant comment contrasts with that of one of the party's historians, Anthony Seldon,
who, in 1995 saw no reason to doubt the Tory's continuing dominance in the new century about to
dawn. In his 800 page Conservative Century, he wrote:

'its very pragmatism and adaptability will allow it to overcome the severe internal and support
problems it faces in the 1990s, and will in all probability ensure that the cycles of Conservative
dominance will be repeated well into the 21st century.'

It was indeed true that the party had dominated the last century. After the first world war, the nation
occasionally allowed Labour a go at running the country- in 1924 and 1931- and then for the historic
post-war Attlee government followed by Wilson's more tentative governments in 1964 and 1966.
But the seeds of Labour decay were already well in place and a decade of union inspired strife and
economic decline gave the Conservatives the rest of the century... until the arrival of Mr Blair.
It seemed- and still seems- the Tories have no answer to this class turncoat, this public school,
Oxbridge educated, lawyer son of a once aspirant Conservative MP.

Leadership Blues

1. Major had the near impossible task of following in the footsteps of the party's greatest ever
peacetime leader and with a small majority-despite a healthy 42% share of the vote in 1992- at a time
of deep dissent over the EU. His leadership was also unsteady as he demonstrated over the ill-advised
'back to basics' initiative and the ensuing storm of sleaze stories. The fact that he had himself carried
out an affair for several years in the late 1980s suggests further evidence of suspect judgement.
He was unable to impress discipline upon a party which seemed determined to fall apart or 'implode'.
Arguably the exit from the ERM- a Labour backed policy after all- was unfortunate but it condemned
the party to years of poll ratings which barely reflected its core one third support of voters.

2. Hague, elected in 1997, flirted with being Howard's deputy but ended up being elected himself.
He had the advantage of youth at only 36 years but, after appearing to go for the centre ground steered
rightwards with his 'Comonsense Revolution' and the losing die was cast; even more so when an anti-
EU message delivered victory in the 1999 Euro-elections and falsely reinforced such an approach.
Widely and unfairly lampooned for being inexperienced and naive, he rattled Blair in the Commons
but failed to raise Conservative poll ratings above that core vote level and the 2001 election result was
another Blairite landslide albeit on a turnout of only 59.2%. Once defeated Hague resigned and became
immediately respected and admired by the same media which had derided him when aspiring to be
Prime Minister.

3. Iain Duncan Smith: was the answer the party membership came up with to the question posed by
Young William's departure. Ironically he was the beneficiary of a Hague reform: in an effort to make
his party more democratic he had reformed the procedures for electing new leaders, giving the party
membership the right to vote for the two candidates who came top of the parliamentary party’s
leadership polls. 'IDS' as the ex guards officer was called, was clearly not the choice of more than a
third of Tory MPs but in the run-off with the experienced, able and nationally popular Kenneth Clarke-
a Europhile former Chancellor- the Eurosceptic Thatcherite was hugely preferred. The result was that
the party did manage to advance beyond its core vote but, despite Blair's travails, only by a couple of
points by the autumn of 2003 when the party conference met in a mood of vindictive intent towards its
leader. IDS made a heavily choreographed speech which was first praised then ridiculed by the press.
A few weeks later Michael Spicer, the Tory MPs chairman had received the requisite number of letters
to trigger a leadership election. But, aware of how damaging such drawn out struggles can be,
the potential competitors stood aside to allow the experienced, respected, though never widely liked
former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to become leader unopposed in December 2003.
4. Howard at first did well against Blair at the Despatch Box without ever besting him. Though he was
occasionally bested himself, Howard has always been a credible potential Prime Minister and a
heavyweight politician so gave the party back some sense of pride and direction. His Shadow Team
recognised new talent and succeeded in keeping older ones on board. Feuding ceased, policy
statements flowed and all seemed much better except for one detail: the polls still flat-lined in the low
thirties. In the summer of 2004 the Conservatives failed to exploit the Leicester and Birmingham by-
elections in which the Liberal Democrats received huge swings from Labour. Finally, in the September
Hartlepool by-election, the party trailed fourth behind the United Kingdom Independence Party
(UKIP). Commentators on both sides of the political divide seemed to agree that the Conservatives
could never win the election anticipated for May 2005.

But can they? The arguments for and against are along the following lines.

Arguments suggesting the Conservatives can win the next election

i) Blair's unpopularity: this has been measured on many occasions and it is clear his Iraq adventure,
against the majority wish of the nation, especially his own party, and the revelations of his massaging
of the evidence which justified the war plus the eventual revelation that there were no Weapons of
Mass Destruction, have depth-charged his believability. A Telegraph poll on 27th August revealed that
while 56% thought Labour honest in 2001, only 28% did so now; and while 30% thought them 'not
honest' in 2001, 63% did so now. Moreover 57% disapproved of the government's record-up 17% on
2001 and from 56% who preferred Labour to handle economic problems in 2001 the figure three years
later was down to 34%.

ii) Howard has performed creditably (it needs to be restated) against Blair and won wide-ranging
respect for his professionalism.

iii) New stars are discernible in the Conservative pantheon, for example George Osborne (MP Tatton)
and David Cameron (MP Witney), Shadow Chief secretary and Policy Coordinator respectively.

iv) While Iraq war was supported by the Tories, they are not as closely connected to it as Blair and
there is some room for attack on the issue come the election. Moreover, if events continue to decline
disastrously in Iraq this can offer some help to the Conservatives; though, clearly, not as much as it will
help the Lib Dems.

v) Tactical Voting in decline: with the break up of the anti-Tory coalition voters will be less likely to
vote tactically to keep Conservatives out. Assuming Conservatives polled votes as indicated by polls in
October 2004, and that no tactical voting occurred they would gain 31 seats while Labour would be
down by 51. As Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer 10th October:

'In St Albans and Welwyn and many tight seats like them, the Tories don't need to increase their vote to
win. They just need Lib Dems, Greens and the rest to stop voting Labour.'

Moreover, he argued, if Lib Dems can take Labour seats in by-elections why can't seats with large
student and muslim populations fall to them in general elections?

vi) Tory support underestimated by polls: in 1992 polls were some 7 per cent out; in 1997 ran 3.5%
behind the eventual vote and in 2001 they underestimated by over 6.5%. Polling companies have not
solved what seems to be an endemic methodological problem in this respect.

vii) Tories have angry minorities on their side: foxhunters and eurosceptics who hate Blair with a
pathological passion: they will campaign determinedly against Blair and this will make a difference
in a low poll.

vii) Intellectual liberal left has deserted Blair; witness the recent Cockerell programme where old
supporters lined up to express their disillusionment and the evidence is seen every day as former
friends cry betrayal. The Hutton and Butler reports on the intelligence underlying the decision to go to
war in Iraq were breaking points for many.
viii) Press are drifting back to Conservatives. Howard has been wooed by Murdoch and Sun is not
only critical of Blair but welcomed Howard's conference speech in its editorial. The Press in Britain has
always been more prone to support right anyway.

ix) Europe, Immigration and taxes: The EU Constitution referendum: will be an issue Conservatives
can exploit as the public seems against the issue and generally is more euro-sceptic than ever; witness
the rise of UKIP. However an Economist/Yougov poll 2nd October suggested 33% of voters would be
more likely to vote Conservative if the party took a firmer line on the EU.
b) Immigration: The same poll showed 40% of voters would be more likely to vote for the party if it
took a firmer line on immigration
c) Taxes: about 20% said they would be more likely to vote Conservative if they promised to lower
taxes.

x) Labour has splits in the party: over 200 have rebelled since 1997 and there is a massive divide
between supporters of Brown and those of Blair.

xi) Time: a week is a long time in politics said Harold Wilson and it is now over seven years since
Blair became PM enough for many to forget the Conservative years and to hope the alternative on
offer might be better than what we currently have.

Reasons to believe Conservatives cannot win the election

i) UKIP: the new party has shown it can damage the Tories and Robert Kilroy -Silk has said he wants
to 'kill' the Conservative party. It was rumoured John Redwood was brought back into the Shadow
Cabinet in an attempt to neutralize the UKIP threat though most commentators, even in the Sunday
Telegraph, were doubtful this would be an effective ploy. More important is whether the party should
veer back towards euro-scepticism to pre-empt UKIP or aim at the middle ground of taxes, public
services etc to challenge for the mainstream. Most of the columnists felt the latter course was the only
one as elections are won in the centre ground and not on the extremes as Hague discovered to his cost
in 2001. To Tory delight Paul Sykes, the Yorkshire millionaire withdrew support from UKIP after
K.Silk's comment.

ii) Middle Ground dominated by Blair: on 2nd October the Economist published a YouGov poll
which asked respondents to place themselves on a left-right spectrum; extreme left minus 100- extreme
right plus 100 (see diagram at end of this note). Most people situated themselves in the middle and the
average voter ended up located at 'minus 2'. Then voters asked to place politicians on the spectrum and
we see Blair 4 points right of centre. Kennedy and Lib Dems are 15 points to the left; Brown is 22 to
left and Labour MPs even more so. Clarke was plus 24 but Howard plus Tory Mps was way out to right
on plus 52. Blair, for all his faults is still the guy most in touch with most voters- a brilliant sense of
political positioning maybe? Brown is seen as definitely to the left- he would face difficulty in
attracting middle England votes. Howard however way out there 54 points from the average and just as
extreme as his Mps, faces a dire struggle to convince moderate voters he is their man and to win the
centre ground.

iii) Blair expert at seizing middle ground: on asylum, crime and welfare state reform Blair has shown
he can 'out Tory' the Tories and moves in with his own spoiling initiatives. Cutting civil service
numbers was a good example: Tories suggested it in February 2004 while Blair-Brown announce cuts
of 80,000 in their economic statement in the summer: their thunder was well and truly stolen.
Yet if Tories want to disengage from euro-scepticism to appear less extreme and monomaniac,
they will let in UKIP flood into the vacated space. They are in an attitude pincer on a number of issues;
on race also they are threatened by the BNP if they tack too far into the centre.

iv) Howard's initiatives backfire: his claim that one Saturday night in Brixton there were no police on
the streets was proved wrong, just as the case of a constituent cited in a Commons debate turned out to
be false. This displays poor opposition tactics.

v) While Blair not trusted, Howard not either to almost similar degree; the August Telegraph poll
showed 57% of those asked thought a future Conservative government would not be 'honest and
trustworthy.'
vi) Economic and Social Policy: the economy has witnessed steady growth since mid nineties.
Brown has managed the economy with great success and inflation and unemployment are low.
This is bound to work to Labour's advantage. Social Policy has been redistributive and poorer voters
will probably reward Labour with their continued support.

vii) Public services: after the years of decline under the Conservatives huge amounts of cash have
been ploughed back into health and education. Poll evidence seems to suggest voters are at last
recognising improvements and this must improve Labour's chances of winning a third term.

viii) Lib Dems challenge: some polls have shown them equal or in front of the Conservatives
and there is no doubt they are in Kennedy's sights as they trounce them in by elections.

ix) Notting Hill Set: maybe this is mostly media hype but a group has been discerned living in Notting
Hill who see themselves as the young Turks surrounding Howard including Ed Vaizey, Rachel
Whetstone, David Cameron, Edward Heathcote-Amory, Michael Gove and George Osborne.
Not important at present but could be beginnings of a 'Howard's court' or a faction rather like that
surrounding Portillo as of old. Simon Heffer attacked them as 'a clique of out-of touch, predominantly
young and metropolitan advisers.' (Daily Mail 4/10/04)

x) Voting System biased against Conservatives: it used to be the case that the electoral system was
biased against Labour but in recent decades this has been reversed by: the piling up of 'wasted' votes
in safe Conservative seats; the tendency for Labour to win seats with low votes in inner city
constituencies; and labour's successful lobbying of the Boundary Commission during its last review
of boundaries. Consequently, even if both big parties received the same vote Labour would enjoy a
majority of over 70 seats.

Conclusion
So the Conservatives are set to do better than in 2001 and will probably avoid a landslide next time,
but the best they can hope for probably is to remove Labour's overall majority. The press had few
doubts on the party's dire state in early October:
 'The party is dying', Daily Mirror (4/10/04); 'The Tories (are) desperately sick and tired', Trevor
Kavanagh, Sun, (4/10/04); 'Only an insane optimist would predict a Tory victory' Financial Times
(4/10/04); 'Voters see a party infirm of purpose, that doesn't believe in itself, and can hardly therefore
expect anyone else to do so.' David Mellor, Evening Standard (4/10/04).
Despite a successful conference in early October, the polls delivered a savage verdict on 10th October.
The Conservatives came out at only 30%- that core vote yet again; Lib Dems were dangerously placed
a few points behind on 23% and Labour were back up, nine points clear at 39%. This was three points
down for the Conservatives on their 2001 performance and suggested Labour would win another
landslide of 154 seats; the Tories meanwhile would end up nine down at 158. The Lib Dems would win
61 on the same calculations. Moreover the poll showed that while 29% trusted Howard more than
Blair, 40% trusted Blair more than Howard.


Bill Jones 12/10/04


Articles
'It's tough being a Tory', Economist, 2nd October, 2004
'The Conservatives and the coming election' Economist 9 th October 2004-10-12
'How to Save Labour' Nick Cohen, Observer, 10th October 2004.
'Didn't they do well?' Hennessey and Kite, Sunday Telegraph, 10th October, 2004
'The party is on its knees', Guardian, 5th October, 2004
'Is there anywhere for the Tories to Turn? A Rawnsley, Observer, 1 August 2004

				
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