LONDON–Until the last few weeks British politics has resembled a slowly moving glacier. Its main features were firmly frozen–the unquestioned dominance of the New Labor government over other parties, the firm dominance of Prime Minister Tony Blair over his own well-disciplined party, and the shaky dominance of Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith over his rebellious opposition party–and as a result it inched forward along predictable lines.
No sane observer thought that the hapless Tories had even a slight chance of beating Blair at the next election. Some reckoned that they might even be overtaken by the third-party Liberal Democrats who agree with Blair on most key issues. The resulting consensus was that British policy would continue to zigzag towards higher public spending and regulation in domestic policy and towards the further integration of the U.K. into a European federal state in foreign affairs while Mr. Blair talked loudly of public sector reform and the vital link with the U.S.
Odd creaking and cracking sounds heard in recent days, however, suggest that the glacier is beginning to melt and new political possibilities beginning to emerge.
The first such creaking sound is that Mr. Blair himself is suddenly vulnerable. Like most observers, I had argued that the Hutton inquiry into the events leading to the suicide of Dr. David Kelly would probably exonerate the prime minister and place the blame on defense secretary (and apparently intended scapegoat) Geoffrey Hoon.
But the final evidence given to Hutton by the top civil servant at Defense revealed that it was Mr. Blair who had chaired the meeting that decided to “out” Kelly–the event that many believe led to his suicide. Since Mr. Blair had publicly denied any part in naming Kelly, he may now be sharply criticized by Lord Hutton when he eventually reports.
And whatever Hutton concludes, the British public’s opinion of Blair’s trustworthiness is already low and is likely to sink further. That in turn will weaken him among Labor MPs, many of whom distrust the PM as a closet Tory and stick with him only because until now he has looked likely to deliver electoral success. There is, of course, a replacement, waiting in the wings–Finance Minister Gordon Brown. Some recent polls even suggest that New Labor would actually be more popular if Brown were to replace Blair.
But Brown too may be a wasting asset. He is firmly identified with the idea that public services can be improved and public spending hiked without raising taxes. But public services remain in poor condition–and the latest economic forecasts suggest that taxes will soon have to be raised soon to pay for Brown’s spending hikes.
So the New Labor government is suddenly vulnerable as well as Blair personally. In fact, for the first time since the New Labor election victory of 1997, the public is willing to listen to what the despised Tories have to say. And at their own recent annual conference, they unveiled a raft of new policies that were generally well-received by the commentators.
That modest success, however, was overshadowed by one great obstacle–the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is widely regarded as a decent man who is simply not up to the job of being prime minister. This is the opinion not only of the general public but even of close colleagues and of those who concede that the Tories have developed attractive new policies under his leadership. If he remains Tory leader, the party will probably continue to divide and flounder.
As I write, however, a full-scale rebellion is being mounted against him. He faces a vote of confidence tomorrow before the Tory parliamentary party committee (the so-called 1922 Committee from an earlier backbench rebellion against the Tory leadership) and though he is fighting bravely, he will be lucky to win. If he does indeed fall short of the 83 votes needed to win or at least to survive, five or six candidates will step forward to replace him. But they would probably soon be whittled down to two: David Davis and Michael Howard.
Neither fits the stereotype of a Tory grandee: Davis was born in low-cost working-class public housing, left school at 15, joined the army, was sent to university as a mature student, became a successful industrial manager in both Britain and Canada, rose quickly in politics after returning to the country in the eighties, and was on the verge of entering the Cabinet when the Tories lost power. Howard is the son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe who settled in Wales. He graduated from a public grammar school and Cambridge, became a successful lawyer, and served with distinction as home secretary in the last Tory government where, among other achievements, he fought the judges in support of stricter penalties and actually saw crime fall on his watch.
Both men are strong Atlanticists, free marketers, and supporters of public service reform. Both are effective debaters–Howard is perhaps stronger in the House of Commons, Davis perhaps more effective on television. And both of them project competence.
It is impossible to predict which of these men would prevail in any contest. But it is clear that either of them would be a more effective and appealing leader than the present incumbent. Almost as important for the Tory party as who wins, however, is the form of that election.
Leading Tories will want to shorten the contest and to smooth over any differences of opinion–Duncan Smith indeed is currently arguing that “a fractious election contest” lasting months would devastate the party. That is currently seen as the strongest argument for keeping him on. If an election is called over his objections, therefore, there may still be an attempt to shorten the process, to restrict the voting to members of parliament, and to get rid of the current procedure for a final vote of ordinary party members in the country after a series of national debates between the two candidates.
Whatever the abstract merits of such a change, it is the exact opposite of what the Tories need now. For the first time in years, the British are seriously disillusioned with Blair’s New Labor and willing to listen to the Tories–and for the first time in years the Tories have something to say. What better opportunity for the Tories to get that message across than by a series of lively public debates around the nation between two strong but courteous debaters who agree on the general case for a modern conservatism but who differ on some of the details. It is a public-relations dream attracting the kind of public attention that money alone can’t buy.
After such an election, the Tories might still lag behind New Labor. But they would have reintroduced themselves to the electorate. The voters would have a realistic alternative to Blairite social democracy. Other policies would be clearly on the national agenda. The glacier would continue to melt. If the Tories shrink from this step, however, then they will have chosen to keep waving the long goodbye. As has been said in another context, you cannot help something that cannot help itself.
–John O’Sullivan is editor of The National Interest. This is based on a piece that appeared in today’s Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.