Tories rake embers for glimmer of light


LAST WEEK's letter was to have brought you some thoughts on the troubles of Mr Tony Blair or, as some might put it, the trouble with Mr Blair. This unfashionable (and somewhat unseasonal) notion struck on New Year's eve, as assorted guests around the dinner table discussed politics in the hours before the clock struck, and the serious chat gave way to serious enjoyment.

By accident rather than design, those assembled for the festivities all appeared intent on voting Labour come the next general election. But it was clear that some of them at least would be doing so with a heavy heart.

"I just don't like Blair," said one. "I don't have any sense of him, any sense of what he's about."

Another agreed. He'd voted Labour as far back as he could remember, and would vote "for change" next time. But he mused that - should Mr Blair and Mr Major contest his own constituency - he'd be hard pressed to vote against the Prime Minister.

An early resolution, therefore was to wonder what, if anything, this might tell us about the actual standing of the two men, and the virtually unchallengeable assumption that Mr Blair's arrival in 10 Downing Street is but a matter of time.

However, events, as you know, got in the way. Ms Emma Nicholson's famous defection to the Liberal Democrats set the Conservative cats amongst the pigeons. By common consent, the story of last week set the political scene for the year. While pundits licked their lips in anticipation of still more deadly work by the Grim Reaper, the bookmakers slashed the odds against an early election.

One week on, the Liberal Democrats are still milking Ms Nicholson for all she's worth. Barely a day goes by without another vicious assault on her former colleagues.

A former defence chief called Mr Michael Portillo "a little creep". (This followed a decision to sell off Admiralty Arch, swiftly reversed by Mr Major; it was not apparently within the Defence Secretary's departmental responsibilities in the first place.)

Not to be outdone, Ms Nicholson said Mr Portillo was a "cowardly" creep to boot. While the Tory left savoured this invective, their former colleague then turned her attention to the man (no, not Mr Heseltine) who never gave her a job in government. Mr Major, she said, was like a pig being led to market by the Tory right.

This is all welcomed as good, clean (if not exactly moderate) sport, since nobody is meant to like Mr Portillo. And when the Defence Secretary claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt by sections of his party, he was deemed to have escalated the Tory tensions still further.

No sooner had Mr Major issued his warning that the party would fall to electoral defeat unless it pulled together, than word emerged that Lady Thatcher would tonight give her first substantial speech on domestic politics since her fall in 1990.

The nervousness in Downing Street and in Tory ranks is understandable. She has done Mr Major few enough favours in the past. Some commentators believe that, whatever she intends, the former prime minister's intervention can hardly fail to be divisive.

ANY comment to her Eurosceptic audience (reportedly to include Mr Portillo and Mr Peter Lilley) about the single currency will fan the flames of the party's European war. Any call for a return to the Thatcherite standard of the 1980s will be seized upon by the Tory left, and see Mr Major cast once again as a hapless Prime Minister struggling to give coherence to an impossibly divided party.

A certain gleeful anticipation in the Labour leader's office, therefore, would be easy to understand. In A4 hours we will know the effect of Lady Thatcher's return to the fray. If, as predicted in yesterday's London Times, she issues a call to arms and warns against a "lurch to the left", then the sense will be enhanced of battle already commenced for the succession following the Tories' electoral defeat.

But Mr Blair's people may yet be disappointed. Moving quickly to dispel rumours, Lady Thatcher made it clear that she does not consider a Blair victory inevitable. On the contrary, she said, "in view of the lack of substance of the Leader of the Opposition's recent speeches, I believe that the chances of the Conservative Party winning the next election improve by the day".

The same thought dearly sustains Mr Major. And while the lines of the Tory attack are not yet consistent, Mr Major evidently feels Mr Blair's Big Idea - for a "stakeholder society" - represents "a fundamental political error" which will open "clear red water" between the two parties.

One Tory response has been to interpret Mr Blair's idea as the promise of a continuation of what they have been doing since 1979, under a new team of ministers with the benefit of fatter wallets. The other, echoed by Mr Major yesterday, is to proclaim it a return to traditional Labour corporatism.

But as Peter Riddell of the Times has observed, shrewder Tory strategists can see the stakeholder concept linking ideas about participation, trust, inclusion and active citizenship with Labour proposals for a minimum wage, training, opting into the EU Social Chapter, two tier boards and formal recognition of trade union rights.

By venturing a different relationship between government and business, Riddell concludes, the elusive Mr Blair has given the Tories the opportunity to get to grips with him on the central issues of enterprise and welfare.

Mr Major yesterday gave a renewed signal of his enthusiasm for a 20p standard rate of tax. While crossing his fingers and praying to survive to see a November budget, he has here the makings of a campaign against Labour.

And he is buoyed by evidence from the Guardian's pollsters that a turnaround in Tory fortunes - which they say relates directly to last summer's leadership contest - could, if sustained, see the Conservatives narrow Labour's actual lead to between two and three points come May 1997.

It's still a massive it but, as assorted commentators and leader writers have observed in the past few days, the fat lady ain't singing just yet.