The Magazine

Tory! Tory! Tory!

British conservatives blow themselves up.

Aug 6, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 44 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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ON SEPTEMBER 12, BRITAIN’S CONSERVATIVE PARTY will tally 330,000 mail-in votes for party leader. At that point it will bestow upon either (a) the centrist former chancellor of the exchequer Kenneth Clarke or (b) the hard-line Thatcherite shadow defense minister Iain Duncan Smith what increasingly looks like the trickiest job in Western politics.

A little more than a decade after they ousted Margaret Thatcher as their party leader and prime minister, Britain’s Tories really ought to be riding high. The syllogism is simple: The big issue in British politics for the foreseeable future is whether Britain should enter the European Monetary Union, abandoning the pound sterling for the Euro. The British people, in the main, hate this idea, and the Tories are the party that agrees with them. Ergo, Conservatives should win.

But they don’t. When Tory leader William Hague chose to contest the June 7 parliamentary elections on a "Save the Pound" theme, he thought he was hitting Labour prime minister Tony Blair at his weak point. Blair is petrified of the Euro referendum he has promised, and can’t even get his own chancellor of the exchequer to see eye to eye with him on the need to scrap the pound. What’s more, Blair was running at the nadir of his premiership, reeling from the disaster of hoof-and-mouth disease, and facing persistent public complaints about both a deteriorating national health service and a partially privatized rail system that is going from inconvenient to dangerous.

Yet Hague and the Tories got clobbered for the second consecutive election. They picked up one seat at Westminster, true, but that still left them with only 166 of 659 parliamentary seats. In broad sections of the country, they are the third party, behind the once-centrist Liberal Democrats, who are now running quite consistently to the left of Labour. In huge swaths of Britain, the Conservative party is extinct. It holds one seat in Scotland, none in Wales. In neither 1997 nor 2001 did a Tory win a single seat in any city or large town outside of London. On the day after this spring’s elections, Hague, of course, resigned.

So the Tories are now halfway through an exercise they hope will rescue them from the cruelest kind of political illogic. Their position is roughly the equivalent of what Republicans went through in the Gingrich years—a message that was a magic bullet half a decade before turning into an albatross—except that the albatross phase is going on forever. They’re using what is, in effect, the first primary election in party history to choose a leader and turn the party around.

The process is novel: First the party’s parliamentary caucus picks two candidates, then party members nationwide choose between them. The result of a rules change in 1997, this innovation is the biggest part of William Hague’s legacy, and, like much of the rest of that legacy, it turns out to have been a catastrophic mistake. Hague’s rationale was that the Tories’ scanty 165-seat delegation was evidence the country didn’t think the Tories were listening. But his solution, as any observer of the U.S. primary system could have warned, was a recipe for radicalism. Put simply, it takes a party whose biggest problem is that it cannot attract voters outside of its shrinking base, and puts the choice of its leader in the hands of the 300,000 people in England who can be guaranteed to vote for it no matter what. After two other candidates were discarded, Tory members of Parliament had Clarke, Duncan Smith, and Michael Portillo as potential political merchandise to offer the public, and held a vote to pick two of them.

Portillo, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, added this spring’s campaign to a spectacular lifelong string of bad luck and misjudgment. The odds-on favorite, Portillo had been the Tories’ ablest and most imaginative Thatcherite since the 1980s. He had been the last major figure to stand with Thatcher herself during the successful party revolt against her in 1990. But he would never get credit for loyalty—the cardinal Tory virtue—because five years later he was found out to have secretly bid for the party leadership when Thatcher’s successor John Major was still out campaigning. (Nor would he get any loyalty back from Thatcher this time around: For him, the great catastrophe of this spring’s race came when the conservative Sunday Telegraph ran a report that Portillo would get Thatcher’s endorsement and she quickly and indignantly denied it.)