Thursday, February 04, 2010

Tory Wobbles

it has been a pretty ho-hum week for David Cameron. Despite a good performance on Prime Minister's question time, he has had to consider a swathe of polls all showing Labour support up, and the Conservatives down. Many Conservative commentators are coming out of the woodwork to give advice to Mr. Cameron- and the chorus has increased in intensity with every percentage point the Tory lead falls. Amongst the various voices trying to steady the ship, there is a growing voice of simple perplexity: "how", they think, "can the Tory lead be in danger, when Labour has so manifestly failed?" Benedict Brogan's piece in the Telegraph this morning is a classic of the breed.

And of course he is right: Labour has failed, and the voters are indeed heartily sick of Gordon Brown. But that is not the same as saying a Conservative victory is inevitable, or even desirable.

Fraser Nelson in the Times, I think, comes quite close to explaining why. He points out that winning office and winning power are two different things. A successful Prime Minister has a clear and usually radical agenda from the very beginning. The problem that Nelson identifies- and I have blogged about this before- is that the Conservative front bench are so focused on winning the election that they have adopted Labour nostrums wholesale and have been far to timid in voicing a clear vision for what they would do in office, should they win. Touting a one billion pound spending cut is a bat squeak compared to the roar of a one hundred and sixty billion pound deficit- and claiming such a pin prick as a "radical solution" is simply ridiculous.

Nor is David Cameron winning any plaudits for his vision of political reform. This morning he writes, reiterating his opposition to electoral reform - and of course he is right to oppose the cheap Labour chicanery on the issue. However his own vision is scarcely more coherent - the root of the problem of expenses and all the rest of it, is that the majority of our MPs represent "safe seats": they can not be held accountable. Without a full scale programme of constitutional reform, including voting reform, the political gap between the governed and the governors will continue to grow, even if there are 10% fewer Members of Parliament. You could argue that political reform is the unfinished business of the Thatcherite reforms: she was prepared to open any market to greater competition, sweeping away swathes of Spanish practices- sometimes even too radically- but the one place she failed to introduce any reforms at all to, was the political system- with malevolent consequences that are now obvious.

So Fraser Nelson is right, in a sense, the Conservatives are in great danger of being too timid, not only too timid to win power, but if the polls fall further even too timid to win office either. But I think that he is probably wrong to hope for change from a Conservative leadership that is too comfortable- even self satisfied- to understand that the state of the country is now bringing us to a crossroads where all choices have serious consequences and all solutions must be radical.

In a sense a new political front is opening up: a clear gap between the statists- of all parties- and the radicals. I am a classical Liberal, but recognise that there are liberals in other parties too. I think that if we do indeed have an inconclusive election then it will be important for radicals across the current political spectrum to reach out to each other and forge a common agenda.

For me, failing to "trust the people" has led to the nanny state agenda and a huge and more sinister reduction in personal freedom to the benefit of the big state. Labour is set to increase the power of the state even further, but the Conservative leadership too is ducking the issue. They have, as Fraser Nelson points out, taken on too much of the syntax of New Labour to be able to challenge the system in the radical way that it requires.

While my own party too needs to be more clearly explicit about the reduction in the power of the state that we want to see, at least the Liberal Democrats have put forward policies that understand the need to cut drastically the spending programmes currently under way. Indeed we have even cut policy commitments that are dear to our hearts, because we know that there is no point- the money simply isn't available.

What I would say to liberals in the Conservative Party is that it is not enough to speak fitly or be silent wisely. It is absurd that radicals now have to look to John Redwood for leadership- and a reflection of just how marginalised the liberal voice has become, that there are no others willing to speak out.

If Fraser Nelson and those like him are disappointed now, I fear that they will be utterly disillusioned after a year of any Conservative government. Only real, radical reform can address the political and economic crisis that our country faces- and the timidity of the Cameroons is simply not enough.

While I understand the feeling that speaking out now might be seen as damaging the prospects of the party within weeks of the election, the fact is that those prospects are in the balance because of a failure to speak out earlier. Fortune favours the bold, not the timid, which is why the Conservative commentariat is rightly concerned about the way things look as we stand on the brink of a decisive general election.

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