The Conservative conference in Blackpool – click here for picture gallery – has seen the five main candidates for the leadership of the Tories stake their claim to the party faithful. Which of the runners will modernise the party and make it electable again? What direction is the party likely to take? Philip Stephens, FT associate editor and columnist answers readers’ questions below.
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Are we not actually witnessing the slow disappearance of the Conservative Party? The Christian Democrats - once a formidable electoral force - disappeared in Italy because of their irrelevance to the post-cold war age. Have the Tories shown themselves capable of being any more relevant?
Marie Loughlin, London
Philip Stephens: A good question and one that worries serious Conservatives thinking about the party’s long-term future. The fact that the party gathered a majority of votes only in the 55-plus age ground at the last election is one that gives it added resonance.
Since 1992 - the aftermath of sterling’s ejection from the European exchange rate mechanism - the Conservatives support has rarely been above 35 per cent and most often closer to 30 per cent. Part of the explanation lies in disenchantment with the party’s record in office, part with Tony Blair’s advance into the political centre ground, and part, as you suggest, with the blurring of left-right divides in the post cold war world. Francis Maude, the party chairman, gave a good exposition of the scale of the task facing Conservatives at this week’s Blackpool conference.
That said, the Conservatives disappearance from the scene is far from inevitable or even likely. The Christian Democrats in Germany would have done much better with a more compelling leader. And Blair’s likely replacement by Gordon Brown will sharpen some of the old dividing lines. So it is up to Conservatives to seize the opportunity.
In the event Kenneth Clarke becomes the next Conservative leader which candidate would be the most appealing to the electorate as deputy leader in order to win the next general election?
Philip Stephens: I am not sure that voters put too high a premium on the deputy - is John Prescott a vote winner? But were Kenneth Clarke the winner of the leadership contest my guess is that, like Tony Blair, he would choose as his deputy someone who might broaden the base of his support - so in this case, someone from the right. I doubt it would be David Davis. William Hague would be an imaginative choice.
I am a single parent and have been for 15 years. I have never claimed from the state. My son is currently taking A levels and I am working full time in a law firm and studying towards becoming a Legal Exec. What guarantees can the Tory Party give to myself and other parents that they will not do away with WFTC, or increase the already extortionate amount of Council Tax currently being paid? Why can’t there be a lower rate of income tax for single parents? I seem to work very hard and receive very little. What about those who do not have better prospects and shall continue to earn a low wage?
Philip Stephens: I cannot speak for the Tory leadership candidates and as yet none has produced a detailed policy prospectus covering the working families tax credit or the council tax. But you raise a good point. One of the reasons that the party lost the last election was that its tax policies were not deemed credible - that in spite of the promise of immediate, if modest, cuts. Most people simply did not believe it would be able to meet its pledges. The winner of the leadership contest will have a tough time restoring that credibility and will, as you suggest, have to demonstrate that understands the burden on those on low incomes.
To what extent do you think the leadership election will be swayed by charisma over politics?
Alexander Dunkley, Croydon
Philip Stephens: The party would ideally like both. Much as many of the Conservative party activists who gathered in Blackpool this week loathe Tony Blair, there is a grudging admission of his rare talent as a political “performer”. What the party wants now is someone who can not only stand up to Blair (and later Gordon Brown) in the House of Commons but also be engaging and attractive on television and deliver attractive policies. That is a tall order. David Davis’s political instincts are probably closest to those of the activists but they were disappointed by his conference speech. David Cameron has charisma but is seen by many as too young. Kenneth Clarke has political presence but is travelling light on policies. Liam Fox is a good performer but frightens the life out of many One Nation Tories.
In eight or nine years the issue of Europe will be more pressing than it is now. It’s not hard to list some of the reasons: pressure for further EU integration resulting from globalisation; EU membership for Turkey and the Balkans; the rise of China; energy security; immigration and European demographics; and so on. When the Tories take on Gordon Brown for the second time in 2013 or 2014, will they have a coherent policy on Europe? What will it be?
Rory Harden, London
Philip Stephens: Impossible to say. I saw little evidence in Blackpool of long-range thinking on Europe. Many still see the EU principally in terms of the drive towards integration of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The dynamics of enlargement and of globalisation are little discussed. Politically, the candidates on the right find it much easier to play to fears of a federalist plot. And Kenneth Clarke is keeping quiet lest his Europhile views once again cost him the leadership.
What kind of leader do you think the Tories will pick? A candidate offering the middle ground or one offering a more radical change and stronger Tory stand?
Siew Hua Seah, London
Philip Stephens: That’s the $54,000 question. David Davis, an instinctive right winger, remains favourite but his lacklustre performance at the conference has opened the door both to the modernising David Cameron and One Nation Kenneth Clarke. One thing is certain. The only place from which to win a general election is still the centre ground. British voters like moderates and fear extremists.
Of the five Tory leadsership contenders who in your opinion would be best for the economy and why?
Maria Tozzi, London
Philip Stephens: Kenneth Clarke - because he has the realism that comes with experience; and an excellent track record as chancellor.
Do you think the Conservatives want a “Blair”, and do they have one among their leadership candidates?
Andrew Guyton, Clapham
Philip Stephens: The younger ones certaintly do and look to David Cameron as their version. Cameron’s speech to the conference was polished and assured and I gave up counting the number of times he referred to his own generation. The only trouble is that most of those who have a vote in the leadership contest are 30-plus years older.
Isn’t part of the problem that the Tories still heed the siren calls of the Daily Telegraph/Spectator when it comes to picking leaders? Views which have less and less resonance with the British public. It looks like there’ll be an Iain Duncan Smith scenario again - how can they be so daft?
Steven Thomas, London
Philip Stephens: You are right to say that the party must stop talking to itself if it is to reconnect with a wider electorate. There were signs in Blackpool that it understands that. Francis Maude, Alan Duncan and, to a degree, David Cameron all gave that message to the conference. But it is also fair to say that there was loud applause for Liam Fox when he said the party should stop apologising. It is a question of hearts and heads. As you suggest, we only know which rules when they have a new leader. To my mind, the outcome is far from certain.
Kenneth Clarke didn’t show a marked determination to breakaway from the past. Does this have a significant impact on his chances of being elected leader, given the rhetoric about “change” and modernisation that has dominated this year’s party conference?
John Newington, Sussex
Philip Stephens: You are right. Kenneth Clarke is fighting a “back me because I can beat up Gordon Brown” campaign. If he gets to the last round (the vote of activists) that could be enough for a party that seems to be rediscovering an appetite for power.
In explaining New Labour’s success and the Tories’ failure to challenge them at the polls, you argue that the Tories have been “left behind by modernity” while New Labour has changed in response to a changing world. But are you not in danger of mistaking Tony Blair’s breathless justification for his reforms - which in fact show a considerable degree of continuity with the 1980s - for a genuine reflection of social and economic reality? Doesn’t Germany demonstrate that no political party that espouses an unfettered free-market liberalism can hope to win a solid base of electoral support when the fruits of reform are experienced by so many as harder work for longer with fewer rewards and greater insecurity?
David Crouch, London
Philip Stephens: You are right to say that Tony Blair has come to terms with many of the Tories’ economic reforms of the 1980s. But that in itself represented a sharp break with the past for the Labour party. One way of looking at the two parties is to say that Labour has accepted the reality of the market economy while the Conservatives have yet to accept a parallel revolution in the way people lead their lives.
You are also right to say that the Conservatives need a “social” story as well as an economic one - one that persuades people that they will not simply be left to the whims of the marketplace. But society means more than the state. I have always wondered why the Conservatives have not branded themselves as the party of public service as distinct from that of public services.
Read Philip Stephens on the Tories below.
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