Friday, November 26, 2004

Losing the plot

Today, The Daily Telegraph runs its YouGov monthly poll. It reports that, three years after the Conservatives had suffered one of their worst-ever election defeats, winning only 33 percent of the popular vote, they are no better off than they were then. In fact, according to the poll, their support has actually fallen slightly to 32 per cent.

Anthony King, writing the commentary, observes:

Conservatives these days must envy Sisyphus. That poor fellow was doomed to spend all eternity rolling an enormous boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again as soon as it approached the summit. Today's Tories are even worse off. They seem unable to push their boulder within sight of the summit.
He then goes on to remark that the Queen’s speech and the Conservatives' ferocious parliamentary attack on it have evidently made little difference. Labour's lead over the Tories has narrowed from four points last month to three points now.

As a result, the beneficiaries of the Blair Government's unpopularity combined with the Conservatives' inability to take advantage of it are the Liberal Democrats, currently on 23 percent, and a variety of minor parties led by the UK Independence Party, now on five per cent.

The comment about the Queen’s speech is interesting because, despite favourable comment at the time in the Telegraph, eye witnesses in the Chamber were cringing with embarrassment at Howard’s performance. "He lost the House", one told me, the ultimate indictment of a parliamentary leader.

By all accounts, Blair, despite his reputed distaste of standing at the dispatch box, was on top form, launching into a familiar attack on the Conservative Party, as recorded by Hansard:

We start with fantasy tax cuts; we then have fantasy spending; we then have fantasy savings and now we have a fantasy country. Then, of course, we have the Tory policy on Europe. We remember the words about leading from the centre; back comes the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) into the shadow Cabinet. The Tories have now ditched 30 years of policy on engagement with Europe in favour of renegotiation, a policy that even Margaret Thatcher would not entertain. We know that the right hon. Gentleman has boasted that the unilateral renegotiation of our membership of the European Union is "easy".
Howard then intervened with a question that had some of his backbenchers cringing: "Can the Prime Minister explain how Margaret Thatcher got the rebate without renegotiation?" Talk about walking into an elephant trap of your own making, Blair was ready for him, and swatted him down with consummate ease:

She did not get it through renegotiation. [Interruption.] Of course she did not. The financing terms of the EU had to be agreed, and she agreed the rebate as part of that. Indeed, the very reason we were able to get the rebate is that the EU had not agreed its financing terms.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has to explain how he will renegotiate things that the Government have already entered into. That is the difference. In order to renegotiate terms that the Government have already committed themselves to—on fisheries, on social policy, on the social chapter, on the common agricultural policy—and which other countries have already agreed, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have to get the agreement of every one of the other 24 countries. Where are the other countries that are going to agree? They do not exist, so now we even have a fantasy European Union to go alongside the fantasy country.

Fantasy policies are amusing for a fantasy Government, but supposing that Government became a reality, then the fantasy becomes a fraud on the British people and is no longer amusing but dangerous.
Howard has already said, on fishing, that if the "colleagues" did not agree to repatriation, then he would act unilaterally though an Act of Parliament so, to bring up the issue, in this context, was an "own goal", allowing Blair to make a cheap jibe which Howard could not adequately counter.

Effectively, this all builds on the broader picture, where the general consensus is that the Tories have "lost the plot", a view shared by Mary Ann Seighart in The Times today, where she remarks on the Tory ambivalence on the ID card.

It is no wonder that UKIP is building up to a five percent support, and while the Tories take comfort on the current disarray in that party – which is far too tedious to report here – on this too the Tories have lost the plot.

People, even if they do know anything about the turmoil in UKIP, are not in the least concerned. They are not voting for UKIP, but against the Tories, and their inability to capture the high ground on the European Union. Thus, even if EU issues are not always centre-stage, the baleful influence of "Europe" continues to cast its shadow over the Conservative Party.

Not even the wildest optimist now can see any prospect of it regaining power at the general election.

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