Speaking in the Oakdene Day Centre in Cobham, Sir George spoke of the recent events which culiminated in the election of Michael Howard as Party Leader.
"I Want to do two things this evening. First, to try to put in perspective the events of the past fortnight – when the Parliamentary party did, in effect in two days, what it could have taken months to do.
And, second, to give some friendly advice to Michael Howard.
In 1997, the Party should have chosen Ken Clarke as its leader and, if he hadn’t won in 2001, we should then have chosen William Hague, who could have done the night shift as Ken’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. But in 97, Ken narrowly lost and William then changed the voting system. This was part of his vision to rebuild the Party’s membership by enfranchising the Party members, getting their approval for policy and modernising Central Office. That voting system gave MP’s the first shot; we reduced the candidates to two, and the Members decided the play off.
We didn’t fully understand at the time the tensions within that system. I simplify, but MP’s ask themselves one question when choosing a Leader; and members ask a different question.
The currency we deal in is votes at a General Election; so we ask “Which candidate will get me the most votes in my seat?.” Survival locally, success nationally.
The members ask a different question. They say “With which candidate do I agree?” Whose views and values most resemble my own?”
In 2001, we put forward IDS and Ken Clarke. If the decision had been left to the MP’s, Michael Portillo’s votes would have gone to Ken – who was the preferred candidate amongst the Parliamentarians. But the members voted for IDS, in many cases, because he wasn’t KC and because he had robust views on Europe. We have a smaller more polarised membership who did not ask “Who will get the Party the most votes?”
So we got Iain and speaking for myself I accepted the result.
Under IDS’ leadership, there were 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 have been doing far better than it was. 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 have been ten points ahead and preparing for office. But we were not. We were sleepwalking to a third defeat.
Inevitably, the can is carried by the Party Leader. 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.
So a fortnight ago, the Parliamentary Party asked the question. Has IDS convinced the man in the street that he is a potential Prime Minister, and someone who can defeat Tony Blair? Is there someone else who can do it better?
The rest as they say is History. The MP’s are unsentimental people; we got rid of Margaret Thatcher after she had won three times. We got rid of Iain because he didn’t look like winning once.
The mood in Parliament – the mood in my constituency – has transformed. Of course there is sympathy for IDS; but there is a feeling of relief that the transition has been made smoothly to a man better equipped to hold the Government to account and to build an alternative Government in waiting. Listening to Michael on the Today programme, there was a degree of authority and competence that was not there before. Our luck may have changed.
What is my advice to Michael Howard?
1. Knock on the head the "20% cut in public service" allegation" . Michael is in a good position to say that there will not be a 20% Across the board cut in investment in public services under his leadership.
The Labour Party is already planning their next election campaign on the basis of that allegation. Just knock it on the head Michael.
2. Knock on the head the argument that we have a secret policy to withdraw from the EU. That was not IDS policy; nor is it Michaels.
3. Reaffirm the commitment to hold a Referendum on the Constitution. We have wrong-footed the Government on this issue; Labour MP’s are beginning to rebel. It is a good policy on which to fight next June’s Euro-elections – Michael's first major test, and last national election before the next General.
4. Get a grip of Central Office. There has been too much plotting, too many cliques. We need strong leadership and a clear sense of direction. Targetted support for key marginals, good quality literature that impacts on the doorstep.
5. Carry forward the policy work with some key themes. Empowering the professionals – police, doctors, teachers, nurses. They may not think of themselves as Conservatives – but they have an appetite for a party that will give them the freedom to use the skills they have. Restoring confidence in the political process; restoring power to Parliament. Restoring confidence in savings
Michael is not interested in cutting Labour’s majority. He wants to win. He may only have one shot. I believe he can pull it off.