Monday, October 10, 2005

Conservative Party Leader - Part II

‘This year’s third election defeat has had an effect among thinking Tories that the first two failed to trigger. The big thing about the Tories this week is that a lot of them have got it.-got it about the fact that the party fails to connect with the voters, got it that they are too far to the right, got it that they appear out of touch with the real world and most of all, got it that Labour dominated the last decade not through political black arts but through changing.’

Martin Kettle on the Tory conference, Guardian, 8th October.

‘The Conservative Party has no God given right to survive, let alone succeed.’

Francis Maude, Tory Chairman, Blackpool, 3rd October.

‘The leadership contest has into a competition to which candidate can most closely resemble Tony Blair’

Rachel Sylvester, Daily Telegraph, 3rd October, 2005.

‘Never before has a politician risen without a trace so far and so fast as David Cameron.’

Andrew Rawnsley, 9th October, Observer.

‘We are seeing a genuine fight for the philosophy, style and intentions of our principal opposition party, the outcome of which could shape British politics for years to come.’

Observer editorial , 9th October.

‘It’s not that we’ve got nicer, it’s just that we’re fed up with losing.’

Former MP Steve Norris at the conference.

Whether Martin Kettle’s assessment is correct remains to be seen. If memory serves, Hague, IDS and Howard, all spoke of moving into the centre ground but after a few months found the message was being returned with knobs on by party members. They all eventually took fatal refuge in defending the core vote and found themselves either resigning after defeat or before it loomed. Kettle thinks this time it’s different and indeed it should be. The alternative is maybe that the party will atrophy and disappear.

Such an eventuality was not wholly fanciful at the start of the conference. A Populus poll for The Times showed 44% of Conservative voters saying they would prefer a new right of centre party- an increase of 15% on last year. It seems the more optimistic proceedings of the conference have probably scotched this possibility for the time being.

The five hopeful candidates for the leadership have now used the Blackpool conference to set out their stalls. Speeches at Blackpool have historically been crucial for a number of Conservative leaders. In 1963 R.A. Butler found his attempt to swing the massed blue rinse brigade failed as did that of Quentin Hogg whose theatrical casting of his coronet into the ring was seen as too histrionic by a stratum of society which has always preferred discretion and a goodish thickness of curtains between the public and their private doings. Then in 2003 it was the turn of IDS to fall victim to the curse of the Golden Mile. Already in trouble for having not budged the party’s poll ratings, Duncan Smith attempted to deliver his best ever conference speech. His aides sought to help him by provoking 14 fake standing ovations while ‘the quiet man’ threatened to ‘turn up the volume’. A month later he was voted out and Howard installed in his place without a formal vote.

One thought that occurs is that contenders were being measured against the standard set by Toby Blair at conference and in the House. It’s a tough standard as Blair has raised the bar substantially since he emerged in the nineties. It also tends to undermine the idea that speaking skills are no longer a necessary element in a politician’s armory. It’s true that the set piece speeches are rarer but they do exist and those aspiring to be the best, must be the best in this category as well as in the House and on television, not to mention party committees and other more private events.

So how do the candidates measure up after this trial by conference?

Leadership rules

After the 'magic circle’ days when new leaders would ‘emerge’ from a conclave of senior Conservatives, a vote was introduced in the mid sixties. This required the winning candidate to do so by a margin of well over 50% after a maximum of three ballots. Challenging the leader was also made relatively easy as long as a given number favoured a vote and could muster a few supporters. Mrs Thatcher thus found herself challenged in 1989 by Sir Anthony Meyer- something easily met- and then again in November 1990; and this time it proved fatal causing a trauma from which the party has not yet recovered. William Hague, during his tenure as leader made it harder to challenge the incumbent and also opened up the elections to democracy. Some say too much democracy as when the ageing membership voted in 2001 between the voter- friendly Clarke and the voter- repellent Duncan Smith it was the loser IDS who triumphed. Inconsequence Howard tried to change the system to one in which MPs would again elect the leader but the hastily established ‘electoral college’ comprising MPs; MEPs and peers; and local party chairmen turned the idea down on 27th September. A two thirds majority was required but the overall result was only 61% to 38.9%, over five percentage points down short of what was required. So the selection of the new leader will be made according to the ‘Hague’ rules as follows:

Week to 14th ‘Hustings addresses by candidates to Tory party audiences in Westminster.
13th October …. Nominations close
18th October …..First ballot of MPs. Candidate receiving fewest votes is eliminated.
20th October …..Second MPs ballot if more than two remain. Lowest eliminated once again.
25th October …..Third ballot if two or more remain. First two candidates go through to vote by party members.
November….. Month given for two candidates to campaign in country to win support of party members.
5th December… Ballot of party members closes.
6th December…. Winner announced.
7th December…. First PMQs for new leader.

Modernizers versus traditionalists

As the report from the Policy Exchange showed, the party is in need of change. But how much change and of what sort? These are more difficult questions and the recent conference has seen the first shots in the struggle between the modernizers and the traditionalists. The former favour rebuilding the party from scratch rather as Blair did Labour. They yearn for a symbolic object for a new leader to attack as Blair did Clause Four or enemies to vanquish as Blair did the unions and vested Labour interests. Cameron and his somewhat derided ‘Notting Hill’ set, including George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor and MP for Tatton, belong to this faction but Howard too has made sympathetic noises as well as the old warhorse Clarke.
Traditionalists tend to look back to Thatcher with almost religious awe, treasuring the hallowed principles of less government, sound money, scepticism on Europe and low taxes. This group includes probably a majority of the ageing membership, who seem to regard Europe with the same hostile passion as Churchill and his followers reserved for Hitler in the thirties. David Davies and Liam Fox are probably the closest candidates to this line of thinking.


After Michael Ancram and Theresa May stood down from the contest, we were left with five candidates who have declared; it now seems unlikely any others will show before the ballot of MPs.

David Davies, 56
Shadow Home Secretary

Brought up in a council house by his unmarried mother, Davies attened Warwick University, prospered in business and became a part-timer member of the SAS. Appeals to the rightwing of the party with robust views on low tax, minimal regulation, reformed public services and a decentralized Europe. He is closely associated with euroscepticism and was a whip for the Maastricht rebels. Some say he retains some of the whip’s blend of charm and menace. A competent performer in the House, he seldom manages to raise the pulse rate of his audiences. Nevertheless had managed to attract the support of 66 MPs before the conference. Not a bad result given his alleged lack of charm and abrasive tongue. The Economist explains that his campaign at Westminster has been organized by tough minded whips or former whips- Derek Conway and Andrew Mitchell. But his speech lived down to expectations-‘dull and flat’ said The Economist- and was overshadowed by all the others. But it seems his performance in fringe meetings were no better. The Economist criticized his claim that public services in Switzerland and Sweden were better than UK despite being poorer countries. The journal pointed out that both countries have been richer over a 20 year period according to GNP performance. His policy angles are well suited to pushing rightwing buttons- tough on prisons, capital punishment, immigration, Europe and binge drinking- but, according to The Economist, he ‘failed to sound fresh on any’ and seemed lack lustre. Some argue the support is now draining away from Davis and there is time enough for his surefire chance in September to become a busted flush by late November.

David Cameron, 38
Shadow Education Secretary

Educated at Eton and Oxford, son of a stockbroker and married to a daughter of a baronet. Served as an aide in Number 10 and the Treasury before becoming an MP. Has placed himself at the head of the ‘modernizers’ and the comparisons with Blair have been plentiful. Likes to be known as ‘Dave’. He believes the party has to change drastically to have any chance of success. He favours lower taxes, good public services, elected police chiefs and stronger family relationships. Has a disabled son who has helped his interest in the education and care of such disabled people. Initially was seen as too young and inexperienced to command support but has leapt forward though his apparently natural way of speaking without notes and engaging with his audience. His address to the conference-without notes while walking around the stage Blair-style- was a tour de force which won a large number of plaudits and no doubt some converts among MPs as well as the public. A Guardian poll showed he was most favoured by floating voters as the parson to take on Brown: 50% compared with 43% for Davis and 41% for Clarke. He also was rated as ‘likeable’ by 65% (Clarke 38%, Davis 62%) and 54% thought he would appeal to younger voters(38% Clarke, 18% Davis). Person to take on Brown: 50% compared with 43% for Davis and 41% for Clarke. A US pollster, Frank Luntz, on BBC Newsnight 7th October reported his focus group had overwhelmingly picked Cameron out as the man most likely to win and election; they liked his optimistic approach to the future while Clarke had banged on about himself too much. Odds on Cameron have shortened drastically and some say the ‘force’ is now with him. But he is young and much more inexperienced than Blair was when about to become leader and, given the implosion of Hague, is something of a gamble for the party to take. Could he stand up to Blair and Brown at the Dispatch Box? Does he have the metal for the fight at the highest level?

Ken Clarke, 65

Educated Nottingham Grammar School and Oxford. Former Home, Health and Education secretaries plus Chancellor of Exchequer. Famously laid back with interests in jazz, cricket, football and birdwatching. Powerful debater who could take on Blair and Brown. Deputy chairman of British American Tobacco which wins him few admirers, especially when he took a trip ti Vietnam in 2001 when his supporters were trying to whip up enthusiasm for him as leader. Some say he is a bit too lazy to be leader though his record as a minister is impressive. At heart is probably something of a loner and lacks, as Dennis Healey did, a group of active acolytes in the House; maybe a prerequisite for an effective campaign among MPs. Has stood twice already and been rejected but argues he is still young and active enough to do the job. Has even hired a press officer for this campaign. His record as a pro euro pro EU person lost him the contest against IDS but he has since recanted a little on the euro which he argues is no longer a current political issue. Essentially a One Nation Tory-though made an impressive speech against the invasion of Iraq- with support from the old guard ‘Wets’ like Heseltine and Patten. His speech was a vintage, witty piece of brutal Labour bashing Clarkism but it was perhaps less impressive than that of his fellow left of centre rival, the more natural and optimistic Cameron.

Liam Fox, 44
Shadow Foreign Secretary

Educated St Bride’s High School and Glasgow University where he studied medicine and starred as a debater. Worked as GP before becoming an MP. Organized Howard’s leadership campaign. Openly rightwing candidate so competes with Davis on policy positions. Talks about ‘rolling back the intruder state’ and lowering taxes as well as establishing a new relationship with Europe where UK has more control over its own destiny. Spoke last in he ‘beauty contest at the conference but surprised everyone with a sparkling speech which won a spontaneous standing ovation. Some say he has picked up support from Davis-and his youth seems to make him the rising hope of the Tory right but must still be seen as an outsider in mid October. His relative youth is also a big asset as well as his one-time dalliance with pop star Natalie Imbruglia.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, 59
Former Foreign Secretary.

Educated George watson’s School and Edinburgh University where hen studied law. Later studied politics at postgraduate level on politics of Zimbabwe. Trained as barrister and made QC in 1985. Lost seat in 1997n and outside House until 2005, thoughn worked hard to stay in touch with leadership throughout this time. Always ambitious he points out he is much younger than Clarke and only a little older than Davis but he has the appearance and manner of an older person which must count against him. His speech at the conference was first up and he managed to make a good, witty no notes performance but his chances of winning must be slim. He claims he is the ‘lifeboat alongside David Davis’s ocean liner waiting for those who were unimpressed with Davis’s performance.

Concluding Comment

Perhaps the Davis bandwagon was fatally stalled at Blackpool. The party is still looking for that bit of magic to transform its fortunes like Blair did for Labour. Davis is a trusted figure- tough, reasonably sympathetic and comfortably rightwing on all the major issues. But the party knows quite a bit about David Davis and some have reached the conclusion he lacks that magic ingredient. Meanwhile, someone about whom they know a little- David Cameron- has sprinkled just enough stardust to make a growing number think he just might have the Midas political touch which the Tories so desperately need. For those who favour form horses, the Daily Telegraph, which has backed the last three leaders, has yet to make its choice.

But there are still some important uncommitted MPs to be courted including Shadow spokespeople John Redwood, Caroline Spelman and Theresa May. In addition there is the 25 strong ‘Cornerstone’ group (dubbed by wags the ‘Tombstone’ group) associated with the right-winger Edward Leigh. They are said to be leaning towards Liam Fox but they could prove to be less than a block vote once the hustings (e.g. in front of the 1922 Committee) scheduled for this week-10-14th October take place. If Cameron does win a question for Labour will arise: should they elect, as Blair’s successor, a man 20 years older than the Tory leader?

Bookies’ odds

These vary enormously:
1.Read-a bet (online) Davis….4-9; Clarke 3-1; Fox…. 7-1; Cameron…. 14-1; Rifkind….50-1.
2.Coral: Davis 10-11; Cameron 11-4; Clarke 10-3; Fox… 14-1; Rifkind…. 80-1.
3. Bet fair: Cameron 1.38-1; Davis 2.1-1; Clarke 6-1; Fox 12-1.
Clearly Davis remains the favourite with many bookies but Cameron is moving up fast as a possible new favourite. Davis was warned favourites seldom win so Cameron has a similar fear that he might have ‘peaked’ too early. There is a long way to go before 6th December.

Bill Jones 8/10/05


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