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The rabbit in the headlights

Posted by Richard Friday, July 30, 2004

A few days ago, my colleague, slightly apologetically, offered some observations about the Conservative Party.

In a Blog entitled "EU Referendum" we, of course, are slightly restricted in the scope of our material if we are to remain true to our original objective of discussing issues arising in relation to the UK referendum on the constitutional treaty. This is a mixed blessing, as it does relieve us – thank goodness – of any obligation to comment on the broader (or narrower) political issues of the day.

Nevertheless, the referendum, when and if it happens, will not take place in a political vacuum and, as some serious political scientists have observed, the result will be affected as much by broader political considerations as it will the specific issues relating to the constitution. (That, indeed, is why many sensible people are opposed to referendums in the first place.)

Therefore, the broader political environment is relevant to this Blog and, as such, we will continue to comment on issues as they arise, albeit that they may be peripheral to the issue of the EU constitution.

In that context, we note with dismay the opinion poll reported in today’s Daily Telegraph and the commentary by Prof. Anthony King. In fact, the headline gives the flavour of the situation, proclaiming: "Verdict on the Tories: Out of touch, stuck in the past, lacking leadership and a sense of direction".

The dismay comes not through any great love for the Tories, but from the fact that a healthy, vibrant party is essential for a successful referendum campaign, and a Tory party reeling from defeat at the next general – which now seems almost certain – will add considerably to the difficulties in winning the campaign.

Anyhow, the poll is from YouGov, showing that Labout is in the lead, with 34 percent, the Tories are on 33 percent and the Lib-Dems come in at 23 percent. And the "others" which includes UKIP, take 11 percent.

As always, the devil is in the detail, which can be found in the online report, but King’s summing up is that both major parties are held in low esteem and that there is widespread indifference about them, the voters failing to make any real distinction between them.

One would not expect King, however, to draw any conclusions that challenged his own beliefs – the man himself is a notorious soft Europhile, and veers away from any serious critique on EU issues. But my discussions with no end of Conservative and former supporters – and fraught, despairing conversations with constituency party chairmen – all point to one cause, that the Tories are failing to give any lead whatsoever on the EU.

It is not so much what they do say, as what they don’t. In a press conference on environmental policy this week, trailed by Booker in his column last Sunday, in which Howard and Yeo were supposed to come up with a robust new policy on wind farms, the outcome was a damp squib. All Yeo managed was a damp commitment to review planning law changes introduced by Labour, which make it easier for developers to install these accursed things.

Had he come out robustly with a condemnation of wind farms and a policy to suspend any further development – which is what he was advised to do – he would have walked away with front page headlines and a million votes in his pocket. But to do so would have meant confronting our EU obligations under the Kyoto protocol, which Yeo was not prepared to do.

Similarly, as the growing waste crisis mounts, the issue is crying out for some robust common sense, and a statement from the Tories that they will sort out the raft of insane legislation pouring in from Brussels and restore sensible controls would have won them instant applause. But all we get from Yeo is a demand that fly-tipping, the inevitable consequence of the insane laws, is made an arrestable offence.

And, on the subject recently introduced in the Blog, Hoon’s "Future Rapid Effects System" (FRES) the Tories have been totally silent as to whether it should go ahead, and on the political implication of the system. To challenge Hoon would require robust questioning of European defence integration, something which the closet Europhile shadow secretary of state for defence, Nicholas Soames, is not prepared to do.

Given that so much UK policy is now decided at EU level, what has been happening is that the Tories, having decided to treat the EU as a no-go area – have progressively closed down the issues they are prepared to discuss, effectively leaving them only with "schools ‘n’ hospitals", the strong ground already occupied by New Labour.

In other words, what King does not say is that the "dead hand of Europe" continues to cast its spell on the Tories, emasculating them and turning them into political zombies. They cannot come up with any clear blue water between them and New Labour because, to do so would means that they would also have to confront EU policy, and risk the infamous "Tory splits". Howard and his party therefore, are like the proverbial rabbit frozen in the headlights of an approaching car – and the outcome is going to be the same.

Effectively, until the Conservative Party comes to terms with "Europe", it is not going to win a general election and, just as worryingly, it will be heavily compromised when it comes to fighting the EU referendum.