- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

I would like to think that the Scottish novelist A. L. Kennedy was only half-serious when she described Tony Blair’s newly reelected government as a collection of “troglodytes, murderers and spivs.” She does have quite a satirical streak, as you can see for yourself if you visit her web site, where the “Frequently Asked Questions” section includes this tart exchange:

Do you enjoy being a writer?

Why would I enjoy something obsessive-compulsive, massively isolating, poorly paid and filled with opportunities for the unscrupulous to abuse you?

Writing — that I do enjoy.

I felt a lot warmer toward her after reading that. Still, given the lurid comments she has made about Tony Blair in the past, it is safe to say that Ms. Kennedy is less than happy to see him back in Downing Street. She is not alone. Britain’s literary classes have largely managed to convince themselves that the prime minister is an incipient psychopath who keeps a portrait of Mussolini hidden in the top drawer of his desk. Even a fair number of Labor MPs seem depressed at the prospect of another Blair term. As I write this, the call is already going around for a leadership challenge which, the discontents hope, will bring true socialism back to 10 Downing Street, in the shape of Mr Blair’s chancellor, Gordon Brown. Whether Mr. Brown really is an old school socialist remains to be seen. He does, after all, have a suspicious habit of spending his summer holidays at Cape Cod, surrounded by Clintonite economists and policy wonks. The PM-in-waiting, who has been plotting his takeover for years, has been so careful about spelling out his beliefs that even his friends wonder what he really plans to do if and when the big day comes. Will he be a cautious Bill Clinton or a Jerry Brown without the charisma? Even as late as a couple of weeks ago, it was still difficult to work out exactly where he stood on an issue as central as the Iraq war. When he told the press, while sitting next to Mr. Blair at a news conference, that he too would have taken the country to war in 2003, his comments were treated as some major policy pronouncement. And this was, remember, the second most powerful man in the government. No wonder Mr. Blair has been looking harassed lately.

I suspect that the literati have a suspicion, deep down, that Mr. Brown may not be the radical they hope for. They also know, in their heart of hearts, that the Liberal Democrats, for all their talk about being the alternative opposition, do not really have what it takes to be a government. Lib Dems are very fond of talking up a storm and striking radical poses, but running a city hall is all they are really qualified to do (they sometimes make a good job of it as well). Being forced to make hard decisions in government would be a step too far for people who are much happier declaring the Outer Hebrides a nuclear-free zone.

So these are uncertain times for the left. But the right is hardly in better shape. While more optimistic souls point to the increase in the Conservative share of the popular vote, the out-dated constituency boundaries (which fail to reflect the shift of voters away from Labor-controlled urban areas) mean that the parliamentary party is still on a life support machine. The boundaries will be amended soon, but they will still be tilted against the Tories.

In any case, the problem runs deeper. Simply put, the Conservative Party is just not very likeable. Now, the truth is that you do not have to be liked. Margaret Thatcher was never that endearing a figure. But voters respected her authority. Most of the current crop of Tories are what Arnold Schwarzenegger, if he was being polite, would call persons of indeterminate gender. Aside from the fact that they mislaid their reputation for economic competence during the John Major era, too many of them exude the aura of smooth but ineffectual chaps who have inherited their daddy’s business. Even I have this instinctive reaction to them, and I actually voted for them, so imagine how hard it will be for them to win over everyone else. The common touch is missing, and it is hard to see how the rise of a young, well-heeled and ferociously ambitious faction nicknamed “The Notting Hill set” will put this right. (Two of their members, George Osborne and David Cameron, were promoted to senior roles in the shadow cabinet this week.)

Watching the parade of would-be contenders for the party leadership — which will be up for grabs when the colorless Michael Howard steps down shortly — is an incredibly depressing experience. There is one exception: the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, a straight-talking self-made man who has already emerged at the head of the pack. I like Mr Davis. He is aggressive but not bombastic, thoughtful but not cerebral, and unlike most of his colleagues he seems to have had a life. A former businessman, he used to be a member of the army reserve version of the SAS, Britain’s equivalent of the Green Berets. (This meant, as one wag has put it, that “he learned how to strangle people with piano wire, but only at weekends.”)

As the well-informed Sunday Telegraph columnist, Matthew d’Ancona pointed out a few days ago: “Mr. Davis’s best claim to the top job is that he does not look or sound like a Conservative. His biography — raised by a single mother on a council estate — would undoubtedly translate into an appealing political narrative.” Which sounds great to me. But there is a snag. Some of the Conservative hierarchy think Mr. Davis is too right wing. (They presumably would have said the same about the young Mrs T.) Worse still, some think he is, well, too common to lead the posh people’s party. Mr. d’Ancona reports that one of the Notting Hill set even referred to Mr. Davis as a “frightful oik.”

An oik? I had no idea the word was still in use outside of boarding school novels set in the 1950s. The fact that it is still in circulation in the Tory party tells you all you need to know about its state of mind. And the hole it is still in.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. He keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com

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