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Tim Bale - On the Tories self imposed exile
on 2 April 2011
In many ways this book is essential reading for members of the Labour Party not least in understanding the rise of David Cameron and the old adage that its government who lose elections and not opposition's who win them. Similarly, it overwhelmingly demonstrates that oppositions who are fatally divided will find that their wilderness years become an interminable experience. Tim Bale's book is a very readable analysis of why a party, which considered itself the "natural party of government", became unelectable over a prolonged period. It is also illustrative to note how the prevailing political climate of the day changes and how politics shapes shifts so that factors that can be an overwhelming part of political consensus one day are deeply unfashionable the next. Bale's analysis on how New-Labour decimated the Conservatives in 1997 is illustrative. Certainly the "time for change" narrative was running particularly after John Major's years of sleaze (which was actually quite tame bearing in the mind the later MPs allowances scandal). But the larger issue was the Conservatives failure to tap in the electorate views about a lack of investment in services such as education and health. The Tories obsession's centered on the Maastricht revolts, the ERM Debacle, the exhaustion of - and fallout from - the Thatcherite project and a real sense of where to go next. As such as late as the last week of the 1997 election Tory Central Office were predicting a loss of between 40 and 60 seats to New-Labour . The reality was that they lost 170 seats, gained only 31% of the popular vote and not one MP in either Wales or Scotland. A defeat this big was inevitably traumatic. It was made worse by the fact that Blair and Brown came in and for the first two years ran the economy on the basis of Ken Clarke's economic policy. In essence, they nicked the Tories wallet and by doing so Gordon Brown became the "Iron Chancellor" who was later able to go on a huge public spending spree as a result of this "prudence". We all know what happened next to the economy, but do you remember all the different Tory leaders that followed?
Bale's book is essentially about the key to politics namely achieving power and keeping it. His central question is a deceptively simple one, namely "why Tory politicians were unwilling or unable to act in a way that might have given them more hope of winning or at east losing less". The leaders chose to run the party throw this into sharp relief. Firstly the inexperienced and right wing William Hague who launched policies woefully entitled "Common Sense" and who was ridiculed by the Tory right as creating the "muddled middle". Amazingly some on the right like his Thatcherite opponent John Redwood had savagely described Hague as a "train spotting vacuity overlaid by the gloss of management theory". They castigated him for not being right wing enough. The response by party strategists was, therefore, to portray him as the "voice of middle England" and appeal to the Conservative base. This is akin to the Republican base in the US in that it does not have near enough votes to ever win a national election. When Hague lost the 2001 election the Tories conspired to make things worse by replacing him with the totally unelectable Iain Duncan Smith who served for only 777 days and in the words of one Tory MP epitomized the 'knuckle-headed, bovine right-wingery' that believed the key electoral issue to be Europe. He was then followed by the holding operation that was Michael Howard who was tasked to decontaminate the Tory brand from the "nasty party" despite having been famously described by Anne Widdicombe of having "something of the night' about him.
The key part of the book concentrates on the rise of Cameron and George Osborne and the fact that some of the key figures of the years of failure were resurrected. There is no doubt that Cameron was much in thrall to the Blair project and, in particular, its use of focus group/pollsters. Cameron's answer was to drive towards the centre where he challenged party members "Do we stick to our core vote comfort zone or do we openly reach out, do we repeat the mistakes of the past or do we change to win for the future"? Whatever one thinks of Cameron his leadership campaign over the vastly more experienced David Davis was a model of its kind. The latter had described Cameron as "policy lite" but seemed tired and old against the polished old Etonian who clocked up a relatively easy victory.
Overall Bale's book does suffer from a decidedly "instant history" analysis of why in spite of Gordon Brown's unpopularity, a record deficit and the MPs scandal that happened on "Browns Watch" couldn't the Tories win an outright majority in 2010. The prime reasons in Bale's view are that the progressive conservatism of Cameron had not modernised enough for some voters and that the mood of the country was largely undecided. The formation of the Con-Lib Dem coalition was not the prize that Cameron was seeking. Despite "toughing it out" with the right of the Tory Party he also had to concede a fair amount of ground to the then-popular but now toxic Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Bale will need to revisit this analysis that will require the further passage of time to reach more mature conclusions. Similarly, the current huge public expenditure cuts of an admittedly huge deficit could firmly deposit Cameron into "the same old Tories" camp and the fragile coalition could collapse. As a result, future installments and editions of Bale's largely excellent book will be required reading on this unfolding story.