It’s déjà blue all over again

by Stephen Tall on December 13, 2005

The Tory Party is in a rather chipper mood. They’re cock-a-hoop, over-the-moon, on cloud nine. For they have elected a new leader. A man who will usher in a new political dawn, who can take the fight to Mr Blair’s Labour Party, and win the next election.

He has united the Conservatives, promised to lead the party from the centre, bested Mr Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, boosted party membership, wooed back disillusioned donors, gained the support of The Sun, and propelled the Tories into the lead in the opinion polls. The threat he poses has set Mr Brown and Mr Blair at each other’s throats, while support for Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats is hemorrhaging to the resurgent Tories.

Such were the headlines being written two years ago, in late 2003, after Michael Howard became leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Let’s have a canter through some of the stories published in the Tory Party’s house journal, The Daily Telegraph, following Mr Howard’s ascension after IDS was swept under the carpet of political history. And, as you are reading, you may, dear reader, wish to consider if there are any similarities between such reportage, and the rather breathless excitement Mr Cameron’s election has inspired.

Where better to kick off than with ‘Confident Tories begin fight back’ (31st Oct, 2003): “Michael Howard launched the Tories on the ‘hard climb’ back to power yesterday with a promise to lead from the centre and reunite the party’s factions…. a new mood of confidence and excitement gripped the Conservatives, reshaping the landscape at Westminster.” This perhaps suggests that Mr Cameron was not the first Tory leader to set the pulses of Tory supporters rushing by caressing their centrist G-spot. As columnist Bruce Anderson wrote just two days later, on 2nd November, “Suddenly, Tories believe that they have everything to play for. This weekend, they are almost ready to rediscover the long lost pleasures of political optimism.”

That same day, political commentator Matthew d’Ancona dropped a bombshell: even Rupert Murdoch was tiring of the New Labour gloss: “Number 10 was deeply rattled by The Sun’s glowing tributes to Mr Howard last week, having learned to depend deeply on the pro-Blair tabloid in the past six years. Suddenly, Mr Blair’s officials scent in the wind that which they dread most: unpredictability.”

And no wonder, for Mr Howard’s was living up to his pledge to steer the Tory Party towards the mainstream, away from its preferred starboard lurch. The Telegraph’s political editor, George Jones, reported on 6th November that “Michael Howard will launch his leadership of the Conservative Party today with a commitment to continue Iain Duncan Smith’s efforts to show the party is committed to helping the disadvantaged. Mr Howard will make a decisive break with the ‘uncaring’ image acquired during the Thatcher years by demonstrating a new commitment to social justice and tackling poverty.” Most laudable. And all of us can doubtless recall Mr Howard’s determination to place social justice firmly right at the heart of the Tories’ 2005 general election campaign. That and scapegoating refugees and gypsies.

Indeed, so popular was Mr Howard’s caring initiative that, just the next day, the Telegraph gave due prominence to his parliamentary party’s orgasmic raptures: “A new mood of unity and optimism swept through Conservative ranks at Westminster yesterday as Michael Howard was ‘crowned’ the party leader. In a sign that he intends to resist pressure to steer the Tories to the Right, Mr Howard described the party he would lead as ‘broad and generous – broad in appeal and generous in outlook’… [Mr Howard] has impressed and worried Labour MPs. Suddenly they are faced with a competent Tory leader, who will be a match for Tony Blair, and can be presented as a credible prime minister-in-waiting.”

As if his reformist, centrist, modernising policy agenda were not enough to get loyal Tories cheering, the new leader showed himself to be a bit of a dab hand at Prime Minister’s Questions. His first joust with Mr Blair, on 12th November, buoyed the Party. The next day, George Jones enthused that Mr Howard had “lifted Tory morale yesterday when he demonstrated that he was the equal of Tony Blair during their first exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions.” To top it all off, the following week Mr Howard was named Parliamentarian of the Year by The Spectator, edited by his old mucker, Boris Johnson.

But his Midas touch didn’t stop there. Within a fortnight of his coronation, Mr Howard had single-handedly recruited 6,000 new members to the Party, declared Conservative Central Office: “The surge in membership was the biggest since the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s government, they claimed,” (23rd Nov, 2003).

No wonder that, in the face of this onslaught of popular appeal, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties wilted. ‘Lib Dem collapse is the Tories’ chance’ the Telegraph reported, rather excitedly, on 28th November, 2003. The paper’s YouGov poll gave the Tories 38%, Labour 36% and the Lib Dems 19%. As Professor Anthony King pithily predicted: “The Tories are back. Michael Howard has been Conservative leader for only three weeks but YouGov’s latest monthly survey for The Telegraph suggests that he has already returned his party to the political mainstream.” One can understand fully, therefore, why Tory supporters have greeted with such rhapsody Mr Cameron’s first poll ratings, with this month’s YouGov showing the Tories on 37%, Labour 35% and the Lib Dems 21%.

Now I have no wish to piss on the Tory Party’s parade – perish the thought – but a sense of perspective is always a welcome quality. Conservatives have a quite endearing need to believe in their leader’s Messianic ability to deliver them to the promised land of milk, honey and xenophobia. Once it was Mr Howard, now it is Mr Cameron. The media, for its part, simply wishes for some excitement, and so is quite happy to build up the latest challenger to Mr Blair’s sustained domination of the political stage. Mr Cameron may just yet turn out to be the Tory Party’s salvation. But nothing which has happened in the last two months is evidence of that. The proof lies in the future.