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He still doesn't get it

Posted by Richard Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Holding forth in The Daily Telegraph is that sterling example of Tory success, none other than John Major.

A prime minister that was effectively destroyed by the European Union, with the party split by the bitter wrangles over Maastricht, and totally discredited by the ERM debaçle, up he pops in the op-ed column where, without a trace of embarrassment, he is telling the Tories how to get re-elected.

"We have to win hearts and minds and recapture the centre", says this great sage, also observing that, "for too many years, politics has been held in low esteem."

What he doesn't seem to realise is that there is a good argument for suggesting that the pursuit of one is related to the other. As my colleague has pointed out, go down the centre and you get hit by traffic from both direction. It is the "no-man's land" of politics where shells from both sides land.

More to the point, the shadow of Maastricht, and the bitter divisions that it set in train, still haunt the Conservative Party. It is Maastricht, above all, that neuters the Party on the EU issue, and gives the Labour Party endless scope for mischief whenever the EU hits the agenda. Until Conservatives come to terms with that, they are going nowhere.

Yet the man who inflicted the double disaster of Maastricht and the ERM on the Conservative Party - and the nation – mentions neither in his little homily.

Instead, he asserts that the key question remains: what is the thrust - the underpinning philosophy - of 21st-century Conservatism to be? In the early 1990s – just as the Party was tearing itself apart over Maastricht - he advocated a "nation at ease with itself", to the derision of most political commentators at the time.

Yet that remains his recipe. Never mind that membership of the European Union – which now makes the majority of our laws – is actually incompatible with being a Conservative. Never mind that, unless the central issue – of who governs this country – is resolved, the nation cannot ever be at ease with itself.

Yet, all little Major can manage is to whine that it was "a black day" when labels such "Euro-sceptics" or "Euro-enthusiasts" first came into use, clearly not understanding that they represented real, fundamental divisions within the Party. "They did nothing but divide the Conservative Party," says Major. But they still divide the Party. The current terms, "modernisers" and the "traditionalists" of today's debate, are but a re-working of the same divide.

In an attempt at modesty, Major concludes that "experience is the name people give to their mistakes." He admits to experience. What he doesn't admit to is total. abject failure, the man who wrecked the Conservative Party. But, as a born-again sage, he is now certain that the Conservatives can win – "but only if we embrace the changing nature of the world as it is today, and capture the non-ideological heart of the British voter." Yeah, right.