Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Gripe and away

While Mrs Gripe and I share a few days away I thought I would share with you a little theory I have held for a time about how that nice Mr Cameron became leader of the Conservative party and in particular the role of Michael Howard’s leadership of the party in this process. I warn you, we have an essay on our hands.

Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to reminisce over recent Tory leaders. When it became clear that Iain Duncan Smith was in the penultimate week of his leadership, there was a lot of speculation about who would take over. Oliver Letwin was considered to be the most promising candidate by many, Ken Clarke could never be ruled out, and there were a number of others. One person who was definitely not talking about running was Michael Howard.

At this time, the party was still in turmoil. William Hague as leader had done ok with a job that wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Iain “quiet man” Duncan “quiet man” Smith (sorry, I don’t know where to put that in his silly sequence of names) had managed to plummet it down from a party that no-one liked into being a laughing stock. It still had to sort itself out to have a chance of returning to power at all (let alone making good on its claim to be the ‘natural party of government’). That meant leading with a vision that could unite the party (instead of being divided around key questions such as Europe) and present the public with an alternative.

All the while, Tony Blair was getting off lightly. As Andrew Marvell, the great poet and politician of the 17th century, said: the same arts that did gain a power must it maintain. Getting into power through spin and through fudging compromise with the old left meant continuing those bad habits while in office. No-one in the Tory party was lampooning his fabled ‘third way’ for being Tory-style market-centric policies implemented through old socialist methods. No-one pointed out the flaws in the approach of centralising, controlling, setting targets, taxing, spending, pandering to unions and taking people away from what they do best to put them on paperwork duty. No-one was pointing out that in order to negotiate with business over financing schools and hospitals it was crucial first to have business experience – something that many Tory ministers and few Labour ministers actually have. In other words, the great cracks in the foundations of Tony Blair’s approach were being left to grow rather than the whole edifice being condemned. The Tory party was navel-gazing while Tony Blair was left to find an opposition from within his own party.

The Conservative party needed a leader who was capable of the crucial three things: creating a vision that would inspire the public, leading the party with that vision and proactively destabilising Tony Blair rather than reactively chipping away at him. The trouble was that the grass-roots party was not going to give it such a leader: the best that they could hope to be given by the blue-rinse brigade was a leader who could lead with a vision and destabilize Tony Blair but whose vision would be offensive to the majority of the public who were neither xenophobic enough nor Europhobic enough to be inspired by it.

With this in mind, let’s return to the times in question. Once it was clear that IDS would be getting more time to spend in quiet reflection, the speculation started to mount about who would come forward (as discussed above). When he was finally ousted, not a word came from the parliamentary party. Then, within a short period, all of the expected candidates (apart from Ken Clarke) came out and backed Michael Howard. Howard appeared shocked and humbly declared that he’d better lead the party after all then. Then he set about (mildly) duffing Blair up in parliament before fighting (and losing) the 2005 election on old Tory values. After the defeat, he announced that he would step down but only after he had succeeded in changing the way in which the party elected its leaders. Once he did this, the party had an open leadership election and returned the freshest-seeming candidate – that nice Mr Cameron.

I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not, as a rule, like coming up with theories such as this. But it is not an outlandish leap of logic to conclude from all of this that the parliamentary party got together and decided that if it was ever to regain power it would need to put someone in to prove to the party that it had to change, and then change how leaders were elected so that the most credible candidate, rather than the most right wing one, got returned. Only one of the old guard of Tories could possibly convince the party faithful that change was necessary. In this theory, Michael Howard would have done a rather noble thing in deliberately losing an election with a campaign based on old Tory values in order to give the party a fresher leader who could renew its voice.

If my theory is correct then that is what he did – if so then that nice Mr Cameron owes him a great debt of gratitude because he could never have been elected (and now inflicting Grievous Political Harm on Brown’s government) without him.

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