- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

It may well be true what they say, that the British Conservative Party will only hasten its doom by picking a new leader who is actually a conservative. The cause for which it stands is now so weak and beaten that it takes a highly imaginative optimist to believe that the Tories will ever again hold office. Almost everyone under the age of 35, except for a few eccentrics and defiant dissenters, believes that Conservatives as people and politicians are either immoral, absurd or both. Most of their remaining members, generously estimated at 300,000, are well over 50 years old and clearly remember the Second World War and its austere aftermath, in a nation whose ideology has been formed by half a century of peace and prosperity. "Out of touch" is putting it mildly. They are living on a different planet, albeit a better one, where the morals, manners and principles of another Britain are still preserved.
The party has not only lost almost all its strength in Scotland and Wales, where a new separatism threatens to uncouple the United Kingdom for which the Tories are supposed to stand. It has been driven from many of the pleasant suburbs and gentle market towns where it was once secure, usually by the Liberal Democrats, a radical socialist grouping which has cunningly managed to portray itself as a center party while moving its policies well to the left of Tony Blair's Labour government. Many of Fleet Street's national newspapers, once reliably Conservative, have pledged allegiance instead to Mr. Blair. Unending scandals or alleged scandals break over the heads of famous Tory figures, including the author, and onetime deputy party chairman Jeffrey Archer, now doing time in the penitentiary for perjury. Who would want to lead it at such a time?
The choice is remarkably stark. The few remaining Conservative members of Parliament were fairly evenly split between three men: Michael Portillo, the onetime acolyte of Margaret Thatcher now on a lengthy voyage of self-rediscovery after coming out of the closet as, of all things, a former homosexual; Kenneth Clarke, an engaging bully much liked by political journalists, with whom he likes to enjoy long and generous lunches, but in the grip of political ideas dating from the 1960s; and Iain Duncan Smith, the soldier son of a Battle of Britain Spitfire ace, utterly without experience of high office partly because he stuck to his political principles rather than seek preferment. Mr. Portillo disappointed many would-be supporters with his confused appeal to inclusive politics and so came third. He was knocked out of the final ballot, a sort of national primary in which Mr. Clarke and Mr. Smith must woo the inhabitants of Planet Tory between now and decision day on Sept. 12.
But this election is not really about policy. If it were, Mr. Clarke would certainly lose, since for the most part he has few differences with the Labour government, except that he is rather more enthusiastic than Mr. Blair about abolishing British national independence by joining the Euro. Mr. Smith, on the other hand, is both personally and politically close to the heart of his movement. He is a father of four young children who has done real jobs, in the Army and in business. He is an unshakeable opponent of the Euro, a supporter of lower taxes and of radical plans to get the dead hand of the state off Britain's failed education and health systems. As Tory defense spokesman, he exposed and effectively attacked Mr. Blair's plans to put British troops under a European command, plans which ultimately threaten the Atlantic alliance which Mr. Smith wishes to strengthen rather than weaken. The argument of the Clarke camp is that none of this really matters. He is, or likes to think he is, a regular guy who enjoys jazz, drinks and smokes in scorn of modern puritanism, though his consultancy work for Big Tobacco has annoyed some of his left-wing constituency. He is also an experienced Cabinet secretary having run the equivalents of Washington's Health, Education, Justice, and Treasury departments, though opinions differ sharply about whether he was any good at any of them. His campaign can be summed up as "What does all this politics matter. You need a big man who can communicate well on TV and take on Mr Blair." In fact, his campaign flyer, very short on detail, proclaims "The Conservatives need a leader who can win the next general election," and prominently displays a recent poll showing that many more people would be more likely to vote Tory if Mr. Clarke were leader than if Mr. Duncan were.
This is undoubtedly true. They would be more likely to. However, they probably wouldn't. If they want an anti-British, moderately competent center-left government they have one already. What is more, its leader is into rock and roll rather than the rather outdated jazz which Mr. Clarke favors and which, like many of his enthusiasms, is incomprehensible to millions of younger voters. If Labour becomes unpopular, the welfare-dependent British electorate, which repeatedly tells the opinion polls that it likes paying tax and wants to pay more, is going to turn left, not right. That is not to say that a Tory Party led by Mr. Smith would do any better. As an organization and a movement; the Conservatives are in such deep trouble that not much short of divine intervention is going to restore them to office. The question before them at the moment is whether they should go down to a principled defeat or an unprincipled one.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday of London and the author of "The Abolition of Britain" published in the United States by Encounter Books.

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