In yesterday’s Times, Daniel Finkelstein used his weekly column to accuse right-wingers like Graham Brady of wanting to maintain the Conservative Party as "the best-dressed corpse in the morgue." A good line, Danny, but – as we discussed over cans of Coke yesterday afternoon – I wasn’t so impressed with your arguments (or your support for the Olympic logo!). Here’s my fisk of key sections of your article…
"But the depressing thing is that so many people on the Right still appear to think that they can escape it [it being a Clause For moment]. Never mind having their own Tory Clause Four moment, they haven’t yet come to terms with Labour’s Clause Four moment. I watched the grammar school row unfold with my mouth wide open. How can they not get it? What’s wrong with these people?"
I do not believe that the Conservative Party has a Clause Four that we need to be rid of. Grammar schools – which have a great track record of powering social mobility – are certainly not equivalent to Labour’s Clause Four commitment to economy-destroying levels of state ownership.
"Before the 1997 election I was having a discussion with a Conservative friend (David Willetts as it happens) about how bad the result would be. As bad as in the Labour landslide of 1945? Or worse, as bad as when the Liberals swept to power in 1906. We were both wrong, it was a catastrophe for the Tories unequalled since 1832. It was just as bad in 2001. And pretty much the same in 2005. So you don’t have to have a PhD in political strategy to realise that the Conservative Party now has to change."
The 1997 General Election result was a catastrophe and I agree that the Conservative Party has to change. There are aspects of the 1997 Settlement – as your colleague Peter Riddell calls it – that we have to accept as a party. I think of, for example, the minimum wage, devolution to Scotland and Wales, an independent Bank of England, civil partnerships and much greater international development spending. I may not like every aspect of that Settlement (although some of it is very welcome) but it’s not true that grassroot Conservatives are blind to the need for compromise and change. The key issue is the nature of change that is required.
"It has to compromise many of its long-held opinions in order to get some new people, people who are uncomfortable with existing Tory policy, to join in and give it support."
I have already conceded that there needs to be some compromise but let’s not rush to abandon too much, too quickly. William Hague was wrong to spend so much of the 2001 campaign promising to ‘keep the pound’ and, in 2005, Michael Howard devoted too much political energy to our policy on immigration. But the party was right on both of those issues and on the four ‘core vote’ themes of tax, Europe, immigration and crime I think we are largely on the side of public opinion and are certainly right on the substance of those issues. The problem with our traditional views is not that they are wrong but they were not part of a balanced manifesto.
"It has to broaden its coalition. A lot. It simply can’t win, or even come close to winning, if Labour is fighting on the centre ground and the Tory party isn’t."
Aiming to "broaden the coalition" is crucial. I’m with you here although the rest of your article does not really develop this theme.
"Amazingly, hilariously, petulantly, tragically, doltishly, persistently, bizarrely, infuriatingly, arrogantly, obtusely, fantastically, so many Conservatives appear to believe that no compromise, or at least very little, is needed. Yes, in theory, they accept the need for change. It’s just that in practice they oppose every compromise with reality and the voters that anyone suggests. This is, as Mr Cameron put it, delusional."
I’ve already said that we should accept key parts of the Labour inheritance. Here are some other changes that I think we should make: (1) we should stop selling arms to despotic regimes and, topically, it shouldn’t be the LibDems who lead the charge against the stink associated with the BAe-Saudi arms deal; (2) we should be the leading campaigners against human trafficking and other modern-day forms of slavery; (3) tax relief should be biased towards the poorest members of society; (4) we should not defend big donations to political parties but we should propose a retail-based approach to political fundraising with no taxpayers’ cash; (5) we should eschew a Hefferesque tone; (6) we should not be friends of the long hours working culture…
"My old friend Norman Blackwell, with whom I worked closely and happily when he was head of John Major’s policy unit, has spoken up in defence of the Tory 1997 policy of having a grammar school in every town. He thinks that policy is a good one. Of course he does. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have put it in the manifesto, now would he? But I am sure that he noticed that the campaign in which this policy had a starring role did not have a happy ending."
We did not lose the 1997 General Election on the day that we inserted the grammar schools policy into our manifesto. We lost that election in 1992 when our party’s reputation for economic competence was destroyed by the ERM debacle. There were many good policies in the 1997 manifesto that should not be blamed for our defeat.
"Yesterday morning a Times Populus poll showed that 36 per cent of people supported Mr Brady’s grammar school policy while 60 per cent backed that outlined by David Willetts."
I tried to deal with this on Tuesday.
ICM and YouGov asked different questions to you and found majority
support for grammar schools. I don’t agree with grammar schools and
the 11+ "all over the country" as the poll you quote suggested was the
alternative to the Tory position. I have the more modest hope that the
party of localism and choice would simply allow local people the
freedom to set up a new grammar school if they choose.
"Tories have a choice. They can be a tight, right little party or
they can win. They can’t do both. Make up your mind. Which is it going
This is a false choice. The danger is that the Conservative Party
becomes a tight little party on the centre if it doesn’t keep its
traditional supporters happy. It’s no good appealing only to Waitrose
voters and their quality of life worries if we don’t talk to striving
voters who worry about crime and tax and the standard of living.
12.15pm update: Danny Finkelstein has now fisked my fisk.