Monday, August 16, 2004

A nettle ungrasped

In a longish op-ed in the Telegraph today by Toby Helm, there is one thing he has got right: "A mid-August gloom has descended on the Tory camp", he reveals:

Sit down and chat to the more thoughtful MPs or officials these days and they tend to look at you despairingly, as if they would welcome suggestions. They feel confused and, as many freely admit, ideologically at sea. They talk about "seeing it through" to the election. "And then, if we do badly," said one, as if he was about to reveal some masterplan to change everything after a third election loss, "God knows!"
Helm, however, does know – or thinks he knows - what to do. He offers the counsel that "all Howard requires is a strong message – and one more heave".

Would that it was so simple. As we have observed in a previous Blog, the trouble with the Tory party is the same thing that is absent from Helm's piece: in over a thousand words, he uses the word "Europe" only once, and then in a passing reference to Gordon Brown. Unwittingly, therefore, he actually does provide the answer – or at least, in an entirely negative sense, he identifies the problem: the total inability to see the elephant in the room.

Only yesterday, for instance, we saw the front page of the Mail on Sunday screaming about the plan to amalgamate the five Guards infantry regiments into a "large/large regiment", with a claim by Col. Tim Collins that this was "a precursor to a future European Army". Yet the one thing missing from the piece was any comment on this from the Conservative opposition.

I do not know whether the Mail journalists attempted to get a comment from a Conservative spokesman, but why should they bother? Historically, the Conservatives have been in the forefront of the move towards European defence integration so, when it comes to attacking the current government’s underlying agenda, they are totally compromised. Hence in his response to Hoon’s defence announcement in the House on 21 July, Nicholas Soames, Tory shadow secretary of state for defence, did not mention “Europe” once.

Similarly, when attacking the growing chaos on Britain's waste policy, all Tim Yeo, shadow secretary of state for the environment, could do was call for fly-tipping to be made an arrestable offence. As for Prescott's regionalisation agenda, again the "E-word" has been noticeably absent for Tory rhetoric.

But, if the Tory party has a problem with the "E-word", so it seems do Telegraph journalists. As did Anthony King at the end of July, Helm completely ignores it and instead confines his diagnosis of the Conservative party's malaise to three issues: its trouble finding a distinctive message; its personnel – many of whom are seen as a relic of the Thatcher years - and the solid state of the economy.

Writes Helm, "the greatest frustration of all is the inability to find a message to convey to voters that is not already being preached by Labour and that doesn't look like a throwback to old Conservatism".

But the answer is staring both Helm and Howard in the face. Confront the dreaded "E-word" and clear blue water opens up immediately, giving the Conservatives a truly distinctive message. Forget the "modernisers" and the so-called "radicals", and forget the idea of "one more heave". Hit the "E" button and enough voters will come flocking back to make the difference. But, if the Helms of this world can't recognise this, what chance is there of the Tories grasping the nettle?

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