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May 07, 2005

Flinty Howard ushers in a new era for the Tories and for Britain

Matthew Parris

THE GENERAL ELECTION of 2005 has solved nobody’s problems but there is one important doubt it does dispel. Whether there would ever be another Tory government was a question that had begun to haunt the epoch. No longer. After Thursday’s results we know that the answer is Yes — and maybe quite soon.

The Conservative Party has come back out of the dark. Perhaps we should be grateful that a man that the media has called a creature of the night was entrusted with the task of guiding it through the shadows and into the light. Michael Howard’s success in this election campaign was limited and his reward in the coinage of percentages and seats was modest, yet what Mr Howard has done will earn him an everlasting place on the Conservative roll of honour: he has turned a decade-long retreat into the beginnings of an advance. He has turned the Tory project round.

A newly focused, newly disciplined and reinvigorated Conservative Party went into battle at this election, held its ground, took many hits, stuck to its guns, and began to inch forward. Every campaigner I met respected Mr Howard’s grip and clarity; every campaigner I met acknowledged that he had remotivated the party.

But nobody was honestly able to report that their leader’s name was winning over doubtful voters on the doorstep.

Mr Howard had done what he does best, and it is hugely to his credit now that he has the clear-sightedness to allow that this was close to the limit of what he can accomplish, and the generosity to volunteer an exit which will be as cool and disciplined as everything else he has done.

Lord, how I admire the unsloppiness, the unsentimentality, the starchiness, the understatement of this man. Among the moist eyes, quivering lips and posturing vacuities of the politics of recent years, Mr Howard stands out like a sliver of flint in a melting jelly. Think of the melodrama we shall have to endure when the present Prime Minister finally decides to hang up his powder-puff, think of the vapours and the hysterics — and blow the parchment-dry Mr Howard a silent kiss.

He has the pleasure of knowing that most Tories want him to stay. But understaying his welcome like this gives him the upper hand in dictating the terms of departure. And he should be in no hurry, for it is important to get this right.

My reading of the Conservative Party countrywide is that it would agree easily to any proposal that the rules for electing a new leader be changed. Grassroots Tories have never been comfortable with the leading role that William Hague’s reforms thrust upon them, and many is the so-called “blue-rinse matron” of the shires (a wholly media-invented beast) who has told me she thinks Tory activists are the last people to choose a leader who has to appeal beyond the ranks of the likes of her. That Mr Howard now has no personal interest in the selection system would give his proposals wings: a fine legacy.

Mr Howard’s successor, however, will face a big problem, which has hardly been resolved by the party’s success at the polls. All three main parties at Westminster are in trouble, and it is the same trouble. The problem is direction. Where does each go from here?

New Labour’s difficulty is most acute. As a Conservative I kept my mouth shut when commentators right across the ideological range, from the editorial columns of this newspaper to the rantings of the hard Left, solemly recommended that the electorate punish but not dismiss the Government. I kept my mouth shut because Tony Blair has been right all along: without a powerful mandate from the voters, his modernising project will stall. “Punishing” him with a sharply reduced majority has been a gift to the neanderthals among the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade unions. A thin majority may paralyse a reforming government.

What hope now of pushing the logic of top-up fees further, as the Government should? What hope now of market-driven reforms to the NHS? As the economy turns down, where now will Labour whips find the parliamentary discipline to manage the cuts in spending that will be necessary?

I do not buy the idea, freshly-peddled as Friday dawned, that this could be the chance for Mr Blair to discover honesty in government and to relaunch his administration as a listening leadership. New Labour does not do candour, and Mr Blair will find humility when the hippopotamus finds grace. Why, not 30 seconds into his victory speech at Sedgefield, he was flattering himself with a new misleading statistic that had just popped into his mind. Not only had he won his seat (he told the adoring crowd) but he had also increased his majority! In truth he received nearly 2,000 fewer votes this time; the slightly widened gap between himself and his nearest challenger arose because votes against him were spread across more candidates. But there he goes again. The fellow’s incurable.

Or maybe the word is “chronic”, because I begin to doubt my confidence that he must quit soon. How hard do the claims of his successor press upon him if the domestic economy of which (Gordon Brown claims) our Chancellor is the architect, goes into reverse? How many times do we need to replay the tape of Mr Brown growling “no return to Tory boom and bust!” before the urgency of promoting him begins to fade?

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are being lured by their own (rather thin) winnings into a trap. After Thursday night it is clear where the Lib Dem advance is meeting least resistance: in Labour heartland territory in the cities of the North — witness some astonishing advances in Leeds and Tyneside. Failing to win over Tories, they are winning over disaffected Labour supporters: non-Tories no longer willing to be clients of the Labour Party. Upwardly and rightwardly mobile new Labour is losing support in its ancient serfdoms, and Charles Kennedy is finding new friends there.

The logic invites the third party to move into the vacuum created on Labour’s left. The logic is a snare.