Tories: can they save themselves?

Tories: can they save themselves?

John Humphrys asks: will the Conservative Party move to the right and is this the way to win the next election?

The Prime Minister said at the weekend that his party would not ‘lurch to the right’ after the humiliation of coming third behind the United Kingdom Independence Party in the Eastleigh by-election last week. But some of his ministers have been making comments that have been interpreted as meaning that that’s exactly what the Conservative Party does intend to do. Is that what they’re up to? Is it the way to win the next election? And, if not, what can the Tories do to keep their hopes alive?

Many people were expecting civil war to break out in the Conservative Party over the weekend. Instead there has been a calm which some think a little eerie, as though the result was so bad that even the usual plotters were stunned, forcing them to pause before going into action.

There’s certainly no doubting the scale of the defeat. Tory supporters knew they would have a tough time taking on their coalition allies in a seat the Lib Dems have held for twenty years and where they have a monopoly of seats on the local council. But the circumstances of the by-election gave them real hope. The sitting Lib Dem MP had had to resign after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice; the party nationally was engulfed in a sex scandal; and Nick Clegg was widely thought to have bungled his handling of the worst crisis in his party since he became its leader. Yet not only did the Lib Dems hold on but UKIP came from behind to snatch second place.

Since Eastleigh is on the list of the top twenty seats the Tories are targeting in order to win a majority at the next election, the by-election result has compounded the fears already rising within the party that outright victory at the next election may be beyond its grasp. It’s not just that opinion polls show the Tories trailing badly – that, after all, is common for governments in the midterm of a parliament and it hasn’t stopped some of them going on to win re-election. Rather, the realisation that there’s not likely to be much good news between now and 2015 but only the continuing grind of austerity has combined with the failure of the party to secure changes to parliamentary boundaries (which would have been to the party’s electoral advantage) to instill a deep sense of pessimism if not outright despair. What to do?

UKIP’s success has prompted those on the right of the Tory party to claim that the answer is obvious: move to the right and deny UKIP the chance to claim that it alone now offers policies that appeal to right-wingers. But the Prime Minister has built his whole career as Conservative leader on a strategy of wanting to ‘detoxify’ the party and to persuade centrist voters that the Tories are not ‘nasty right-wingers’. That’s why hoodies were hugged, claims to be the greenest of parties were accentuated and why now gay marriage is being pushed by the leadership against the wishes of many in the grassroots.

So it was not surprising that Mr Cameron said he had no intention of lurching to the right. But politicians have a reputation for saying one thing and doing another and some commentators are suggesting that this may be exactly what is going on now. For some Tory ministers are floating ideas that look like an attempt to steal UKIP’s clothes.

There are two particular straws in the wind. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said over the weekend that the Tories wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act brought in by the last Labour Government. The party can’t do this at the moment because the Lib Dems won’t let them but the proposal looks certain to be in the next Tory manifesto. There have also been suggestions that the party may go further than this and propose leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain was instrumental in bringing into being after the Second World War (it has little to do with the EU) but which Mr Grayling believes has changed out of all recognition.

Meanwhile Tory ministers are scratching their heads trying to find ways of dealing with a problem which UKIP thinks will be a major recruiter to its cause early next year – the right of Romanians and Bulgarians to come and work in Britain in unlimited numbers and to become beneficiaries of Britain’s welfare state.

While Britain remains a member of the European Union nothing can be done to restrict the right of any EU national to work here (as Brits can work anywhere in the EU). The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, says estimating how many Romanians and Bulgarians will avail themselves of the opportunity is simply ‘guesswork’. Some analysts have suggested 50,000 a year. What is certainly the case is that the last Labour government hugely underestimated the number of Polish and other central European immigrants a decade ago.

Mr Hague said at the weekend that the government wanted to remove the ‘artificial, perverse incentives’ to Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, by which he meant the attraction of certain aspects of our benefit, health and housing services. The problem for the Tories is that they cannot simply discriminate against potential EU immigrants without running up against EU law. What seems to be being considered, however, is changing the rules for all recipients of such benefits (including native-born Brits) so that the immigration incentives will be removed without flouting EU law.

Ideas that are being floated include allowing councils to discriminate in favour of locally-born people in the allocation of council housing and making the contributory element a condition of access to certain health services and welfare benefits. But this could deprive some British people of benefits they currently enjoy.

To some, such ideas seem rightwing because of a common anti-foreigner element detected in them – human rights are administered by a ‘foreign’ court, and benefit changes are aimed at keeping out foreigners. Others, however, see them as simply sensible measures to allow us to run our affairs in ways that many people, and not only self-described ‘right-wingers’ would approve of.

On this reading, the Prime Minister would be able to claim that he is able to adopt measures especially advocated by the right without being guilty of ‘lurching’ to the right. But would such measures be enough to give the Tories some hope of winning the next election?

Some in the party are bound to doubt it. To them the economy is key. The trouble is that after three years of economic stagnation patience with the current Tory leadership is likely soon to start wearing thin, if it hasn’t already. It’s possible, of course, that healthy economic growth could resume in time for the next election but few are predicting this. And the chancellor has already made clear that the party will have to admit that austerity and continuing public spending cuts will have to continue well into the next parliament.

So what can the Tories do? Some are beginning to think that the radical option of a change in leader may be the only way. The continuing electoral attractiveness of Boris Johnson reminds them that things could be very different. We didn’t hear much talk of ditching David Cameron last weekend. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing it if hopes of winning the next election start to evaporate into thin air.

What’s your view?

  • Were you surprised by the Eastleigh result or not?
  • Is David Cameron right to say he won’t lurch to the right? Do you believe him?
  • What do you make of the ideas being floated that the Human Rights Act should be repealed and that Britain should leave the European Convention?
  • Would you support proposals to change the system of welfare, housing and health benefits in order to deter potential Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants even if those changes limited access of British people to such benefits? 
  • Do you consider the ideas being mooted as constituting a ‘lurch to the right’ or as simply sensible?
  • Should the Tories dump David Cameron before the election?
  • Do you think the Tories can win the next election and, if so, what single thing do you think they should do to help bring it about?

Let us know your views.


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Authors

John Humphrys

John Humphrys is presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4 and Mastermind on BBC1. He has won many national journalism awards and written seven books.