Thoughts on the Conservative Party Leadership
2 Nov 2003
IDS with Betsy, on the eve of defeat.
IDS with Betsy, on the eve of defeat.
Michael Howard at the launch of his campaign
Michael Howard at the launch of his campaign
Under IDS’ leadership, there have been many achievements. The Party is now the largest Party in local Government in England; IDS has confounded his critics by moving the Conservative Party decisively back to the centre of the political spectrum, where any successful political party in this country needs to be, rather than leading it further to the right - as the Labour Party hoped. (Indeed, it may have been easier for the Party to make this move under IDS, rather than under Ken Clarke, whose candidacy I supported in 1997 and 2001.) IDS has brought on a number of able and promising people from the 1997 intake by promoting them to the Shadow Cabinet – Oliver Letwin, Damian Green, Caroline Spelman. He has focussed the Party's attention on public services and encouraged radical new policies to reform and improve them; and he has stopped the Party arguing about Europe. (The Party has indeed captured the high ground on Europe by demanding a referendum on the new Constitution.) And under his Leadership, Theresa May has helped broaden the base of the Party by encouraging a wider range of people to apply for and be adopted in winnable Parliamentary seats. We have recaptured some of the lost ground in the Opinion Polls, and IDS has come over as a decent and honourable man.
But, and it is a big but, the Conservative Party should be doing far better than it is at the moment. I remember in the 1974-79 Parliament, when there was a failing Labour Government and we had a new Leader, and when the Conservatives won by-elections in Ashfield, Workington, Birmingham Stechford and Walsall – all Labour strongholds. There should be no seats that we are not capable of winning – not even Brent East. With the difficulties that confront the Government as it emerges from a war that lacked popular support, as it awaits what is likely to be a damning report from Lord Hutton, as it is seen to be failing on public services, as it confronts a growing Budget deficit, as it forfeits the trust and confidence of the Government, all this then magnified by the divisions within the Government on tuition fees, foundation hospitals and Lords reform, - with all that, we should be ten points ahead and preparing for office. But we are not.
Inevitably, the can is carried by the Party Leader. When Iain won two years ago, I accepted the verdict of the Party and have loyally supported him and the Party. More recently, as I have spoken to Conservative meetings up and down the country, I have found myself defending Iain against the very people who voted for him.
One cannot pretend that there have been no problems within the Party about his Leadership. There have been a series of expensive management decisions at Central Office, culminating in the disastrous appointment and resignation of Barry Legge; there was the misjudged "Unite or Die" speech last November, and the badly handled Shadow Cabinet reshuffle of July 2002. At the Party Conference, I thought it unwise of him to call the Prime Minister a liar and to refer to Charles Kennedy's fondness of alcohol. Has he convinced the man in the street that he is a potential Prime Minister, and someone who can defeat Tony Blair?
I have listened to my supporters in the Constituency and while many want Iain to stay, an equal number believe he has had two years and has not been able to demonstrate the qualities needed to lead us to victory. If there was to be a change of Leader with a view to restoring the Party’s fortunes, it has to be now or never. With the prospect of a third thumping defeat for the Party under IDS, the Parliamentary Party looks as if it will decide that there are better people who can lead us.
What should happen next?
First, the Conservative Party should recognise that someone will emerge from the current process as Leader, behind whom we must all unite. We cannot go through this process again in this Parliament. That task of unity will be made more difficult if we are not careful about the language we use about each other now. We can make the case for alternative Leaders without describing people who disagree with us as plotters, malcontents and people driven by bitterness and ambition.People are entitled to vote as they wish without being accused of causing despair and contempt in the Party in the country. It is perfectly legitimate for people to use the opportunities in the rules to test the Leadership - and their loyalty to the Party may be every bit as strong as those supporters who believe there should be no change. We are all Conservatives wanting the best for our Party. (Having said that, I think IDS has been subjected to some gratuitous abuse, for example by Max Hastings. IDS has gone through a terrible time and has behaved recently with dignity and patience.)
Second, if IDS loses, the Parliamentary party and the voluntary party should try to coalesce around those key people in the Party who want to be part of the next Conservative Government. They owe it to the Party to try to work together to build a winning and cohesive team, and to do it quickly and cleanly. Ideally, they should decide who will do what job. If that is not possible and an election is called, then the MP's should try to produce a clear winner, with the runner-up withdrawing.
Thirdly, having done that, we should then focus our attention on a failing Labour Government and capture the support and imagination of the British public by developing an attractive range of policies in tune with Conservative principles. The party must rediscover its purpose in life, re-awaken its appetite for power and reconnect with the people. It must begin to look outwards and not inwards.

Wednesday October 29th.

I listened to Iain on the Today programme, when he spoke of "internecine warfare" if we have a Leadership election. We must prove him wrong. There is no need for that to happen - if handled correctly it could cure the divisions of the past few weeks.
I have now read his piece in the Times. He has clearly moved on from Blackpool, as he has recognised there have been "shortcomings which need to be addressed." A better tone than at Blackpool when any criticism was greeted with accusations of treason. But he overstates the risk of a contest with the following sentences"
"In short, this is no time for the insulting irrelevance of a leadership contest.
A beauty parade of politicians would look pretty ugly to a nation desperate for an alternative to a failing Government. Do not imagine that the British people will fail to notice if we turn our backs on their concerns for the rest of the year. Do not think that they will not hear the deafening silence of an official Opposition too busy to concern itself with what really matters to ordinary people. And do not kid yourself that they will ignore such a flawed sense of priorities"
I don't agree; Iain said on GMTV this morning that he welcomed todays contest. Indeed he said "In a sense, I urged people to write the letters." If he welcomes the contest, he must accept both its legitimacy and its consequence.

At Prime Minister's questions, IDS quite rightly decided it was business as usual. He asked questions about crime and Europe - and the PM, equally rightly, decided it was business as usual. A few Labour MP's waved Iain goodbye as he left the Chamber, but most of them treated the occasion seriously. Inevitably, dennis Skinner felt he had to make a joke about the crime statistcis and backstabbing, but that was just Dennis.

At 2.30, IDS addressed his colleagues for twenty minutes. He did well, but I am not sure it changed many minds. He was received warmly and spoke about his ambitions for the party, his achievements to date, and the risks of a change. He recognised he had made some mistakes and said he had learnt from them. The speech covered the same ground as his article in the Times, but it was focussed more directly at his colleagues. One can but admire his courage.

In the meantime, a number of colleagues have turned some pages rather quickly and are looking ahead. But until we get a result at 7pm, it is all speculation.

7.00. 75 for IDS, 90 against.Much closer than the journalists were saying yesterday. Certainly not a humiliation for IDS; but not so close that the verdict was in doubt. To that extent, it was a much better outcome than some of the alternatives. While I am sure that Iain's family wanted him to succede, I genuinely hope that they are now able to spend more time with him, without all the pressures he has had to cope with. The last few weeks must have been awful.
The debate now is whether we have a Coronation or a Marathon. In other words, whether the Parliamentary Party is willing to coalesce around one candidate who commands so much support that he or she is unstoppable. Or whether the normal democratic process should take place, with a series of votes amongst the MP's for a number of competing candidates, in which the last drops out until only two are left, at which point they process round the country before a postal ballot of all members.
It is too soon to predict what will happen. I doubt whether all the potential candidates will agree at this stage to give any of the others a clear run, despite the diplomatic footwork that is underway as I write this. It may take a round of ballotting to determine the relative strengths and bargaining power of the various candidates before they sit round a table to discuss matters.

But one thing is clear; simply changing the Leader will not bring home the bacon. The Party has got to change as well.

At 7.45, I am told to watch my TV for a statement by David Davies. Contrary to what we all thought, David is not standing leaving Michael with what looks like a clear run. David and his team must have worked out that he would not make it and then decided not to rock the boat. A good decision, and one that will probably deter other candidates from throwing their hat in the ring. So it looks like Michael Howard.

I can support that. Michael was my Secretary of State when I was Minister of Housing and we worked well together. He is a serious politician, who can look after himself in the House and on the media. He will need to reach out beyond the Party's traditional supporters if he is to win the next Election and, if he becomes Leader, there will be a key role for all members of the Party to play in broadening his political base.

Thursday.
Listening to the Radio, it seems increasingly clear that there will be no challenge to Michael Howard. As the rules say that nominations do not close until a week today, there may well be a hiatus until we are absolutely certain, but it would appear that the Parliamentary Party has taken a collective decision to resolve this quickly. There may be some concern from the party members that they are cut out of the decision-making process, but I suspect many will be relieved that IDS' prediction of three months internecine warfare will be proved wrong.

I have been to see Michael Howard. It is too soon to say "Congratulations", but not too soon to say "Good Luck." We talk about the challenges that face the Party and how he would respond to them. It is an impressive performance. He asks if I would be prepared to back him if he declares his candidacy. I say Yes.

It would appear that the Party has compressed into two days a process that has previously taken several months. The mood of the Party in the House has lifted perceptibly. There is an air of relief that we have rediscovered the plot, are uniting behind a new Leader and focussing on the task ahead.

Because I am speaking in a debate in the House of Commons, I cannot attend the launch at the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall. Michael seems to have done very well.

October 31st. With Ken announcing he will not stand, Michael would appear to be home and dry. This will be the first time in 30 years that I have supported the successful candidate, when there has been a vacancy for a new Leader. The mood in the constituency is mixed. Some members resent what has happened to IDS and believe the Parliamentary Party has acted dishonourably; but most are prepared to accept the current position and rally round the new Leader. Hopefully, a new chapter in the history of the Party is beginning.

November 2nd (last entry on this subject) At an Association event, the mood has improved perceptibly. There is a degree of optimism I honestly haven't noticed for about 10 years. Of the forty people present, none wanted to wind the clock back a week. While everyone recognised that there was a mountain ahead, the feeling was we were now far better equipped to climb it.
 
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