John Stuart Mill labelled the Conservatives ‘the stupid party’. They have certainly been stupid since 1997, and one wonders if their stupidity will persist. But a related and more interesting question is: ‘Are the Conservatives any longer a serious party?’ A serious party can be one of two things. It can, like the Greens, be concerned with only one issue or one group of issues. Its members are not hoping to form a government – they know they are never going to do that – but they believe the presence of some Greens in Parliament, Brussels and local government will help them publicise the issues they believe to be the most important and induce the government to do something about them.

The second kind of serious party is one concerned with all the issues and, above all, with winning general elections and becoming, or continuing to be, the governing party. The Tories used to be such a party. They had what the historian John Ramsden calls an ‘appetite for Power’, an appetite which since the mid-1990s they have evidently lost. The rebels against the Maastricht Treaty did not care how much damage their activities did to the party and government, whereas in earlier days backbenchers who differed from their government were almost invariably anxious not to damage it, or if they were in opposition to become the government as soon as possible. They therefore needed a capable leader and, whatever the means by which he was chosen, their leader was usually the ablest man in the party.

From 1832, the 19th-century Conservative leaders were Peel, Lord Derby, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Except possibly Derby, who was at least as interested in translating the classics as in governing the country, they were all excellent leaders and the best men for the job. Much the same is true of the first half of the 20th century, when the leaders were Balfour, Bonar Law, Austen Chamberlain, Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Churchill. In the second half of the century they were Churchill again, Eden, Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Heath, Thatcher and John Major – a more mixed bunch, admittedly, but still mostly distinguished and competent. That the names of William Hague at the age of 36 and Iain Duncan Smith at any age should now be added to that illustrious roll is bizarre. How did this Conservative descent into absurdity occur?

During Major’s premiership by far the greatest cause of dissension in the governing party was Europe. After she had been deprived of the leadership, Thatcher soon forgot the productive things she had said and done over Europe in her first seven years of office. Only remembering her last four, pretty barren years, she stirred up the party’s right-wingers to be fierce Europhobes and fight the Maastricht Treaty. In doing so, Chris Patten believes, she destroyed the Conservative Party. The right-wing press took a similar line to Thatcher. No doubt many Conservatives in the country and some of the more naive MPs thought that what they read in the Times and Telegraph reflected genuine British Tory views. Regrettably, they did nothing of the sort. The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was an Australian and is now an American, was as always chiefly concerned with its proprietor’s economic interests and opinions, and the Telegraph, owned then by Conrad Black, a Canadian by birth, reflected Black’s far right American views. Both Murdoch and Black were and are extreme Europhobes.

Major resigned on the morning of his defeat in 1997. His obvious successor was Kenneth Clarke, who had been an outstanding chancellor of the exchequer. Even failures at the Treasury, such as James Callaghan, sometimes become party leaders, and a highly successful chancellor like Clarke should have been in an overwhelmingly strong position for the job. This was particularly so as there was no other clearly suitable candidate. Nevertheless, Europhobia was deemed to be a more important qualification for the leadership than the ability to win the next general election. Accordingly, Conservative MPs gave the Europhobic William Hague, who, although clever, was relatively inexperienced and clearly not up to the job, more votes than Clarke. Retribution duly followed: the party’s record in opposition was abysmal, and predictably it suffered another disastrous defeat in 2001. Oppositions do not win elections, it is often said, governments lose them. But oppositions can lose them too.

Before that election the party had committed another act of stupidity. Hague ushered through a scheme, of which Jeffrey Archer was one of the begetters, to enable Hague’s leadership to survive his expected defeat and thus to keep out Clarke. Under this procedure, MPs balloted to choose the two top candidates, then the final say as to who should be leader was given to the entire paid-up party membership.

The defenders of the change said that it made the party more democratic. In the far-off days when it had well over a million members, such an argument could conceivably have been sustained. But at a time when the membership was down to some 300,000, and their average age was 65, the democratic argument was as farcical as the change itself. Not only was the membership unrepresentative in age, it was unrepresentative in its views. A large membership contained people of diverse opinions and was reasonably representative of the Conservative electorate at large. A membership of 300,000 aged people represented nothing except itself. Ironically, after four hopeless years Hague’s leadership could not be preserved even by this gerrymandering. The Conservative defeat at the 2001 election was so crushing that Hague had to resign immediately.

Although in the subsequent leadership election Kenneth Clarke won more votes from MPs than anyone else, he was defeated in the ballot of party members by the Europhobic Iain Duncan Smith. So, like the MPs in 1997, the party faithful in 2001 voted to indulge their prejudices rather than to choose a leader able to win the next general election.

Predictably, the new leader was a disaster. Because Donald Rumsfeld had flattered him by deigning to see him in Washington, Duncan Smith became as willing a slave of President Bush as the British prime minister was. Unlike Clarke, he strongly and unthinkingly supported Bush and Blair’s disastrous and illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. Conservative voters, who evidently knew more about the Middle East than their leader, were much more opposed to the onslaught than Labour voters were. Had Duncan Smith taken Clarke’s advice and stayed out of the American aggression, the party would now be ideally placed to attack Blair for involving Britain in the Iraqi disaster.

Duncan Smith soon proved so inadequate that in 2003 he had to be removed. The new system of electing a leader was far too damaging to be employed only two years before an election, and by a clever coup Michael Howard was installed without opposition. Not surprisingly, he proved infinitely better than his two predecessors, but he did not have enough time, and never looked anything like a winner. As a result of Tory inadequacy, Labour won easily in 2005 and although the Conservatives gained 33 new MPs they achieved almost exactly the same percentage of the total votes cast –33 per cent – as they had done in 2001.

There was some excuse for Tory MPs backing an obvious loser in 1997 and rather more excuse for the party in the country backing a quite certain loser in 2001: many of them were led astray by our benighted right-wing press. In 1997, liberally quoting Archer, the Times had come down in favour of Hague, and in 2001 it announced that Duncan Smith ‘is a better choice this time’. In a long dissertation the Daily Telegraph, whose editor was then Charles Moore, told its readers that Duncan Smith saw things with ‘the eyes of a voter’ and had a better ‘estimation of the huge scale of the Tory task’ than Clarke did. Moreover, he had ‘a more thoughtful analysis of what has gone wrong’ and was ‘the candidate of the future’. There was only one exception to this sort of stuff. To its credit, the Daily Mail, despite its disagreements with him over Europe, came out in favour of the conspicuously best candidate, Kenneth Clarke.

Not only the leading articles got 2001 so badly wrong; the political commentators did the same. I can’t help wondering if these pundits ever ask themselves if they really want their children and grandchildren, in 25 or 30 years’ time, to be living in a world dominated by the United States, India and China, with Britain having rather less power than a county council does in this country today. And if they do ask themselves that question, whether they go on to think that it would be far better for this country if a powerful and influential Europe, with Britain as a leading member, was on a par with the others and turned the threesome into a foursome. Probably not.

This year the newspapers have not yet announced which candidate they are supporting. Many right-wing commentators, however, have already given their views or at least their prejudices. Apart from probably the Daily Mail and probably Peter Oborne in the Spectator, they look to be doing what they did last time: preferring defeat to victory and political dogma to common sense. Having been so wrong in 2001, our right-wing experts might have confessed as much to their readers before trumpeting their opinions about 2005. Indeed they might have had the grace to say nothing at all about the leadership, or at least to issue a health warning because of their previous errors. I am not an assiduous reader, but I have not seen any confessions of past errors in their columns. Charles Moore, for instance, who was so effusive about the virtues of Duncan Smith and so dismissive of Clarke, is still dismissive of Clarke. Lately he has told us that the trouble with Clarke is that he has not had a new idea for twenty years. When, I wonder, did Mr Moore last have a new idea? Anyway, new ideas in opposition are seldom of much use. If the idea is bad, the government will ravage it; and if it is good, the government will filch it. Moore has even complained of Clarke flattening the flat tax. The flat tax may well be right for, say, the new economies of Eastern Europe, but in long-established economies like those of the United States and Western Europe it would be largely a device for making the rich richer, which is no doubt why it appeals to the neo-cons here and in the US. In any case Moore evidently has not noticed that in Germany Angela Merkel was nearly flattened herself for having allegedly espoused it.

David Davis has promised not to swerve to the right, but as he is already standing on the right touchline, that does not mean much. According to David Cameron, one of the other candidates, Davis is a man of great experience. But that is true only by Cameron’s own standards. During the Major government Davis served for some time in the whips’ office, was parliamentary secretary at the Office of Public Service and Science, and was then a minister of state in the Foreign Office. Otherwise he has been chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and shadow home secretary. Hardly great experience.

Cameron is 39 years old, but he lacks even Hague’s limited experience. He was for seven years head of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications, and otherwise has worked as a political adviser to Norman Lamont at the Treasury and Michael Howard at the Home Office. He has been an MP for only four years. Furthermore, he seems something of a Blairite (and not only in his apparent dislike of verbs), which is pretty odd, as Blair must surely be the least suitable role model available. By all accounts Cameron is clever and nice, but that he thinks such limited experience should enable him to be a good leader of the Conservative Party and prospective prime minister looks more than a little conceited.

We need not spend much time on the two joke candidates: Malcolm Rifkind and Liam Fox. Apart from Clarke, Rifkind would probably make the best prime minister, but he evidently has no chance. Fox was shadow foreign secretary, but his recent remarks do not suggest much knowledge or experience of foreign affairs. He still thinks that the Bush-Blair invasion and occupation of Iraq was well judged, as does Davis.

That leaves Clarke. He has been paymaster general and minister of employment, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for trade and industry, secretary of state for health, secretary of state for education and science, and home secretary, as well as chancellor of the exchequer. Every time he appears on television he demonstrates that he is a class above the other hopefuls: as he himself says, he is the last great beast in the jungle. For the Conservatives to spurn him and choose instead a pussycat to oppose Labour would be suicidal. In 1906 and 1945 Conservative governments were severely defeated. On both occasions the party soon made a dramatic recovery. After the similar defeat in 1997 no such recovery has happened. Instead the party has made almost every conceivable mistake, and now looks likely to continue that record. It will thereby almost certainly condemn itself to at least another nine years in opposition. Were it to elect Kenneth Clarke, it would redeem the last eight years and once again become a serious party.

7 October

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Vol. 27 No. 22 · 17 November 2005

Ian Gilmour is right to point out that the Europhobes have denied the obvious heavyweight, Kenneth Clarke, the chance to lead the Conservative Party and land heavy blows on the Labour administration (LRB, 20 October). Media reports indicate that he has been uninvolved over the last four years and failed to cultivate MPs, particularly the new entry. But the prospect of a selection between a relatively inexperienced right-winger and a totally inexperienced charmer, arbitrated by a membership which, by reason of age, is not representative of the electorate, sends a chill down the spine of anyone who wishes to see the present government faced by a strong and plausible opposition.

John Horsbrugh-Porter
Amersham, Buckinghamshire

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