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Sunday 23 October 2005

The Tories are ready to go dancing

STOP PRESS: The Conservative Party has got over its eight-year nervous breakdown. It has come off the tablets, cast off its droopy grey cardigan, had its hair cut and coloured and it's thinking of going out dancing.

Even a few weeks ago, conversations among Tories about potential party leaders majored on nostalgia about the glory days of Margaret Thatcher and the recurring theme - "If only Ken Clarke wasn't a Europhile."

The widespread assumption was that everyone hated and despised the party, they had no talent to speak of and the only MP who could appear in public without attracting scorn and derision was ebullient 'I am what I am' old Ken.

Yet last week, reflecting the new mood, only 38 out of 198 Tory MPs voted for Clarke and he was out of the game. What's more, while the party is still antipathetic to the EU, his poor showing had more to do with an extraordinary shift in the thinking of the membership as a whole. Politicians and the grassroots still love and enjoy Clarke and would have given much to see him chewing up Tony Blair, but they have decided en masse that when Howard goes, the day of the Thatcherite Big Beasts is over.

Since David Cameron and - to a lesser extent Liam Fox - electrified the party conference, Tories are feeling confident. They've grasped allof a sudden that they don't have to look to the past for talent: they have plenty available in the present. Even David Davis, who made a poor speech, is confident, fluent on radio and television and has credentials as a tough and experienced operator.

It's bruising when your leaders become a joke: William Hague (1997-2001), Iain Duncan Smith (2001-3), and even Michael Howard (2003 and now caretaking) came across as weird. Hague, a brilliant speaker who trounced Blair at Prime Minister's Questions, was mocked for his Yorkshire accent, his baldness and his face. (It was Joan Collins, staunch Conservative and fervent Thatcherite, who first cruelly said he looked like a foetus.) However, Hague contributed to his own downfall. Unlike Maggie Thatcher, who on becoming leader invited wise and older people into her inner circle, Hague made a point of surrounding himself with young ideologues who fatally tried to make him cool. (Cameron, please note.)

Principled, decent Duncan Smith had no hair either, was seen as being obsessive about the EU and worse, was a poor public speaker with throat troubles that led to his being nicknamed 'Iain Duncan Cough'.

Michael Howard, clever and experienced, was more credible, but between his Romanian origins and the accusation by his colleague, Ann Widdecombe, that he had "something of the night about him", he was easily portrayed as abnormal: his nickname was 'Dracula'.

Honourably, after he lost the General Election, Howard refused to stay on as party leader and
announced he would retire in December. This unpopular decision - widely regarded as damaging because it plunged the party into a seven-month leadership contest - has been vindicated.

Policies have been teased out, there has been a healthy debate that is significantly lacking in New Labour and perfectly respectable candidates have emerged of whom no one need be ashamed.

After the pure theatre of the conference and the ensuing electoral hurdles, the spectator sport
continues for another six weeks as the survivors dash around Great Britain.

The extraordinary way in which David Cameron has overtaken David Davis is very much to do with the Tory realisation that their party has to reflect society: Thatcher, after all, was 80 this month.
Davis is macho, but we now live in a feminised society: Cameron drew ecstatic applause from aged Tories when he patted his pregnant wife's stomach.

The most damaging allegations against Cameron are that he is inexperienced, has few policies and could just be another Blair.

This contest is his to lose. Meanwhile, party members are polishing their dancing shoes.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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