Tim Bale teaches politics at Sussex University and is writing a book on the Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.
I’m not alone in thinking Eastbourne by-election did for Margaret Thatcher, though I may of course be biased. Having grown up there, it’s nice to think my home town might be a footnote in history, not just the butt of jokes about God’s Waiting Room. Who knows? Perhaps there’s a budding political scientist in Crewe and Nantwich ecstatic that it’s finally on the map for something other than, ‘well, alright, I confess, I’m not sure what those twin-towns are famous for.’
The question is, will Eastbourne and Crewe have anything else in common after this morning? Looking back on it, losing the jewel of the Costa Geriatrica turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Conservative Party, at least in so far as it was spurred on to ditch its leader in time to save its bacon at the next election.
Whether it might in hindsight have been better to stick with Mrs Thatcher and thus go down to a glorious defeat which would have handed Neil Kinnock the poisoned chalice that became Black Wednesday is another argument entirely. The fact is that, at the time, the Government was saved by the swift removal of a Prime Minister who by then was plumbing hitherto uncharted depths of unpopularity.
This happened not just because the Tories picked a leader who, at least
temporarily, seemed to offer a change of tone and even direction, but
because, in doing so, they ruined Labour’s game-plan – one built
entirely on taking on a politician who was evidently past her flexible
and fearsome best and had begun to alienate colleagues and voters
alike. To Machiavellians, this was the Conservative Party at its
ruthless best – and Labour at its inept and inert worst.
New Labour, of course, was in some ways about the party becoming more
like the Conservatives – not so much in policy terms (ideological
convergence is often overstated), but in terms of becoming an outfit in
which principles were ultimately subordinate to power. The test of
whether the New was anything other than a rhetorical construct is
whether Labour can now emulate the Tories in 1990s and, indeed, in the
mid 1950s. Can Labour MPs, to use Churchill’s phrase, ‘pole-axe’ their
leader now he is so evidently ‘no good’?
It strikes me that it will be difficult for them – not just technically
(it’s not so easy to mount a challenge) but also culturally: New Labour
isn’t really so very different from Old Labour in this respect. What
seems more likely is the worst of both worlds: lots of gnashing and
wailing on the World at One, no assassination in the black of night.
All mouth and no trousers. Or if they do decide to do something, it
will be a few months or even a year down the line and therefore way too
But what if I’m wrong? What if they were to surprise us all and
actually do it? What if they install someone few of us have even
considered, or even heard of – someone who looks, talks and sounds so
different that it messes up a Tory game-plan presumably still built
around Brown? Are Team Cameron more flexible than Team Kinnock? They
have a huge advantage in that David raises far fewer doubts among
voters than did Neil. But still? Is there a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D?
You can replace the letters of the alphabet with real names if you
like. I’m not going to speculate on who Labour might be able to pull
out of the hat – but, prejudice aside, there are, by the law of
averages, people on the red benches who might appear competent and
decisive, can communicate, are from the South East of England, have
appealing back-stories, etc. etc.
Even if, by some miracle, they are discovered and parachuted in, it may
still be too late. But it would still necessitate some fancy footwork
from Cameron and co. Given how well they played the Brown bounce – the
‘rebalancing’ that occurred after the awful by-election in Ealing (was
that really less than a year ago?) – one would expect them to do just
as well. But it would be fascinating nonetheless.