Ten years ago the Conservative Party suffered its worst ever defeat under universal suffrage. It wasn’t just the seats lost or the abysmal vote share, but also the national sense of joy at our humiliation. Were you up for Portillo? That was the question on smiling lips up on happy faces across the land.
Well, I wasn’t up for Portillo. I’d already crawled to my bed in a state of shock – not at the results, but at my reaction. You see, I’d long drifted away from the party – out of disgust at the Poll Tax, the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, the ERM debacle and back to basics. But oddly it was that election night in 1997 that convinced me that, in the timeless words of Iggy Pop, “I am a Conservative.”
The next morning I was off work, feeling sick as the Blairs marched into Downing Street. But amid the triumphal entry some late election results filtered through – not for the general election but for the local elections, also held the previous day. And guess what? We made gains!
Modest gains to be sure, and from a pathetically low base, but gains nonetheless. It was a tiny consolation prize, barely noticed at the time and long since forgotten, but the start of something much bigger. In subsequent years we would overtake the Lib Dems and then Labour to become the first party of local government. While MPs squabbled in Westminster, the quiet competence of our councillors – notably my own county’s Sandy Bruce-Lockhart – rebuilt our base in the country.
That’s why I’m putting them first in my list of why the last ten years have not been wasted. I’ll leave it to others to pick over the wrong turns and dead ends of our time in the wilderness – this is a personal account of the upside: not only the strange survival of the Conservative Party, but also the way it continued to influence the destiny of our nation despite being out of power.
These days William Hague is one of our most popular politicians. It was not always thus. As leader he faced a storm of abuse that would have withered a lesser man. However, the appearance of calm was deceptive; beneath the waterline he was paddling furiously to rescue the party from the consequences of a ruinously expensive election campaign. When people ask why he didn’t do this, that or the other as leader, it’s because he was too busy saving us from bankruptcy!
Better outside the tent…
The threat of bankruptcy wasn’t just financial. In the early years of his premiership, Tony Blair held the nation in thrall. His big tent politics threatened to swallow up all opposition – it certainly swallowed Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Paddy Ashdown. But William Hague was not to be taken in. His finest hours came with his awe-inspiring demolition job of the Government’s fatuous annual report, one the finest Parliamentary performances of recent times – and just maybe the moment when the nation began to see the truth about New Labour.
Still, Blair had his moment of mastery, a time of deadly peril for the
Pound. If Hague had capitulated to Europhile demands, resistance to the
monetary union could have collapsed. But with the Conservative Party
standing firm, consensus was impossible. Hague had a parallel fight to
maintain a moderate line. The party faced a choice between the astute
approach of Business for Sterling and the ravings of, ahem, certain
other groups. Fortunately common sense prevailed. The Conservative
victory in the 1999 European elections was a turning point, Blair
missed his moment and the Pound was safe.
Europe was not, of course, the key to recovery in 2001. A second
landslide defeat meant the end of William Hague’s leadership – and a
choice between Michael Portillo and Ken Clarke. In the event the party
chose neither, turning instead to Iain Duncan Smith. Under constant
attack from some very poor losers, IDS surprised the commentators by
reconnecting the party with its One Nation tradition. His life-changing
visit to the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, was one of the most
extraordinary episodes in the party’s history, the start of something
that has long outlasted his leadership. There is also a related
intellectual legacy: the social justice speeches of Oliver Letwin,
David Willetts and others constitute a statement of Conservative
principle and a repudiation of the Left that should be read by any
Dry run for recovery
Four years ago, the Conservatives made over 500 gains in the local
elections. This left the BBC’s bias hilariously exposed. A news agenda
that had been carefully woven around the resignation of a Tory
frontbencher, farcically unravelled as the results came in. At around
the same time, we stopped flat-lining in the polls, establishing our
first lead over Labour since Black Wednesday (fuel protests apart). It
proved to be a false dawn – yet in many ways the Cameron approach owes
rather more to IDS than his successor.
Ah, but what about Michael Howard? I’m probably not the best person to
ask. It was under Howard that the party’s Renewing One Nation think
tank and later its Policy Unit were scrapped – and I worked for both of
them! Still no hard feelings – and I will say this for the man: He
pursued a core vote strategy with such ruthless efficiency that no
reasonable person could doubt that our third election defeat was down
to the strategy, not its execution.
A new kind of politics
It was also thanks to Michael Howard that one T. Montgomerie Esq. found
himself at a loose end. Never one to waste his time, he not only set up
the Centre for Social Justice with IDS, but also a certain website you
may be familiar with. These formed part of a movement of think tanks,
campaign groups and blogs, which are defining a new kind of open
politics, beyond the control of party establishments. Unlike the US,
open politics in the UK has a Conservative accent – a remarkable
achievement that could have major benefits in the years ahead.
The fight for party democracy
The key event in the emergence of the new politics was the 2005
Conservative leadership election. This got off to the worst possible
start with an attempt to strip the membership of their voting rights.
ConservativeHome led the resistance, ripping apart the case against
democracy. Against the odds, the proposals were defeated, enabling a
democratic contest to proceed.
…And what a contest!
Yes, what an election it was. Month upon month of free publicity for
the Conservative Party. A chance to debate the future. A proper burial
for the Majorite past. And then that conference and those speeches.
Stirring stuff! Penultimately, those dignified debates between David
Cameron and David Davis, a credit on both men and on the Party as a
whole. Lastly, a decisive result, confounding those who said the
membership would always choose the rightwinger. What would have
happened if democracy had been extinguished? Could David Cameron, had
he been elected by MPs only, have carried in the party with him in his
time so far as leader? All we know is that party democracy gave him the
best of all possible starts – and a mandate with which to lead.