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Tory party leadership backbiting

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Issue 1754


Tory party leadership backbiting

By Alex Callinicos

I HAVE an infallible formula for cheering up anyone who is feeling low. Just think about the Tories. However bad things may be for you, they are worse for them. The Tory leadership contest is a source of much fun. It always used to be top Labour politicians who loathed one another. But Ann Widdecombe’s attack on Michael Portillo shows that the Tories are catching up.

The obscurity of the candidates is also delightful. Iain Duncan Smith, the standard-bearer of the Thatcherite right, has been described (by John Redwood of all people) as “the continuity candidate, balding, a right winger and unelectable”. Then there’s David Davis, who is reported to be considering standing. Who is David Davis? I’m a politics addict, and I’m only barely aware of his existence.

Since their last victory in 1992, the Tories have lost more than five and a half million votes in successive general elections. This is one of many indications that the weight of opinion in British society is moving to the left. Of course, this shift to the left is not reflected at the top of society. There a consensus reigns in favour of neo-liberal economic policies.

That’s why the mainstream election campaign was so boring, and why so few people bothered to vote. But even so Blair was forced to campaign on issues such as health and education where the mass of people are demanding radical improvements. He tried to use the election to drum up support for further neo-liberalism, in the shape of the large-scale privatisation of public services.

Opinion polls indicate these efforts were unsuccessful. Traditional social democratic values-the use of the state to reduce inequality and to meet basic needs-remain the strongest strand in British popular consciousness.

The Liberal Democrats were able to outflank New Labour to the left by hypocritically appealing to this strand. The socialist candidates in the election made an unprecedented impact by challenging Blair on a principled basis. By contrast, the Tories experienced total failure in their attempt to win back voters they lost last time by appealing to the most reactionary strains in mass consciousness through their campaigns on the euro, asylum seekers, and law and order.

This is why Portillo is making such an effort to project himself as a “caring Conservative”. The key point is that Portillo is trying to reposition the Tories so that they can relate to the shift to the left in mass consciousness. He began his campaign for the Tory leadership on Wednesday of last week by saying:

“We do need to develop a much better understanding of the problems of education, health and transport. The whole shadow cabinet needs to be involved in demonstrating our commitment to those public services and to developing policies to help improve them.” Now we should take all this with a large pinch of salt. Portillo may have put his Thatcherite antics behind him, but he is still committed to a neo-liberal economic agenda of cutting taxation and spending that can only mean worse public services.

During the US presidential election campaign last autumn George W Bush presented himself as a “compassionate conservative”. But once he was in the White House he started to ram through hard right Republican policies. We should be similarly sceptical of Kenneth Clarke, supposedly representing the Tory “left”. Clarke may seem more like a human being than the average Tory politician, but we shouldn’t forget that as Mrs Thatcher’s health secretary he introduced the market into the NHS.

Clarke, as John Major’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the ultra-tight limits on public spending that Gordon Brown took over and implemented, with disastrous effects on public services. The euro is a further difficulty for the Tories. Most are fanatically opposed to it. It is his support for Britain’s joining the euro that led to Clarke’s humiliating defeat by William Hague in the 1997 leadership elections.

The most powerful sections of big business in Britain want to see Britain joining the euro, and won’t take the Tories seriously while they are so rigidly opposed to entry. This means whoever wins the leadership will have to rely on the generosity of rich eccentrics like John Paul Getty Junior. It won’t be a fun job.

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