Conservatives gathered in Blackpool on Monday to hear their ninth annual “change or die” speech. If there’s one thing Tories know by now, it is that they must change or die.
In the nine years since this speech was first delivered many of them have, indeed, died; and a large number of the survivors have yet to come down decisively against death. What is more, an entire faction of the parliamentary party – the hardline rightwing Cornerstone group – is so worried that members may choose life that they have formed a group expressly to ensure the death option gets a fair hearing. They may even field a candidate – the Marquess of Lothian has been mentioned.
It is not as if the party has not tried to change over those nine years. It has changed address. It has changed its leader (is it four times now?). It has dabbled with kitchen table conservatism, compassionate conservatism, quiet conservatism and shouty conservatism.
On Monday it fell to Francis Maude, the pioneer of the tie-less look (or collarbone conservatism) to give the Theresa May “we’re still crap” lecture.
Delegates dutifully applauded but there was no wild cheering or stamping of Zimmers. An attempt to engineer a standing ovation was aborted midway through as large numbers refused to rise. Perhaps they had been bludgeoned into submission by years of hearing this speech; perhaps they find it hard to get up.
Or perhaps they were confused about which change they were meant to embrace. Should they change their lingering antipathy to the European Union or Kenneth Clarke? Should they break with the run of state-educated oiks and return to the playing fields of Eton with David Cameron?
In his speech, Mr Maude warned members that the Tories too often look like people who wish immigrants had not come to Britain, like people who don’t like contemporary Britain and who look like marriage is the only acceptable relationship.
But this is to miss the point. The Conservatives have failed not because they look like that but because deep down far too many of them are like that. The Tories do not need to change how they look. They need to change the way they are. All of which makes electioneering tricky, since these people will decide the outcome.
Eye of the beholder
Herein, lies the central problem with this week’s so-called beauty contest – and it is a measure of just how far the Conservative party has become removed from reality that this parade of leadership hopefuls is being referred to as a “beauty contest”.
For the people judging this election are not a panel of experts in tune with aesthetic notions of political beauty, but the wider membership of the Conservative party. The result is that the perceived nostrums of political perfection are distorted by the beholder’s own imperfections. It is the equivalent of placing the outcome of a beauty contest in the hands of judges who like women with a squint.
Meanwhile, over in a packed fringe meeting, Mr Clarke was delivering his “I’ll die before I change” speech. Filled with self-reverential remarks about how he’d been opposing Gordon Brown more persistently than anyone – well, apart from Tony Blair – he offered members the chance to change back into the kind of party they were when John Major was in charge and he was putting VAT on fuel.
David Davis, the avowed front-runner, is a big believer in change or die although for tactical reasons he prefers not to say which way he is leaning. On Monday he was posing with two large-chested women sporting “it’s DD for me” t-shirts. Whether this plays with Crawley woman – the party’s latest template for swing voters – remains to be seen, but at least it puts the party in touch with Faliraki man.
Mr Cameron offers the kind of change modernisers desire, and he is doing it with some elan, but even his closest supporters admit they cannot know what kind of leader he would be. The worry is that he would end up another William Hague, unable to carry the party with him on a modernisation course. Of course, Mr Hague’s abandonment of that course means many members hanker for his return – as will be demonstrated when he makes his first platform speech since resigning as leader.
Liam Fox, who has made great play of his being a GP (but so was Harold Shipman), promises change into a radical rightwing party. Whether a lurch to the right, led by a candidate with a minimal track record, classifies as change is, given recent history, open to debate, but Dr Fox should not be written off.
Oh yes, the times they are a-changing. The worry for the Tories is that the more they change, the more they stay the same.