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EDITIONS
Monday, 19 August, 2002, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Dangers of Tory navel-gazing
Conservative Party Conference
Mr Duncan Smith will need to watch signs of dissent

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

So it was probably inevitable that, until Iain Duncan Smith starts coming out with some concrete policies, the party would engage in a bout of introspection.

But, as Neil Kinnock's Labour Party discovered in the 1980s, navel gazing can all too easily lead to factionalism and, if not stamped on pretty quickly, civil war.

Norman Tebbit
Lord Tebbit is demanding sackings
There is certainly an active and sometimes acrimonious debate going on in central office between those who want to "modernise" the party, and make it more attractive to a wider audience, and those who believe it needs to return to its roots.

However, Lord Tebbit is probably right to claim that there are too many apparatchiks in central office pushing their own vision for the future of Conservatism.

Some probably are, as he declares, "spotty youths" with little real political experience.

He suffered from this sort of thing when he was party chairman and, as a result, shut down the troublesome student wing of the party.

And he may also be right to suggest the best way of dealing with all this dissent is to take a few of the troublemakers into the court yard and have them shot.

Die-hards dismayed

But what is not clear is to what extent this debate is reflected amongst grass roots Tories.


Sooner or later New Labour will mess it up, as all governments do

It was believed that when the party elected Mr Duncan Smith as its leader, the membership had spoken.

They appeared to want a Eurosceptic right-winger in the Tebbit mould.

But under Mr Duncan Smith's leadership the party has actually continued down the road of social liberalism started by William Hague.

So it may be that those who put Mr Duncan Smith in charge are dismayed at the path he is leading them down.

And, if that is the case, then he really does have something to worry about.

Midsummer mischief

But there is no sign of a genuine grass roots revolt against Mr Duncan Smith.

And, until he does start fleshing out policy on key areas like the public services and the economy, party members appear willing to give him breathing space.

So he can probably dismiss the current spats as midsummer mischief - although executing a couple of the more conspiratorial individuals might relieve some stress.

By far the more dangerous problem in all this, though, is the feeling that the party is desperately trying to find out what the voters want it to be so it can transform itself into that beast.

End of ideology?

Tony Blair was hugely succesful in tailoring his policies to voters' concerns and, as a result, whipping the central ground from under the Tories.

And ever since, it has proved hugely difficult for the opposition to find that famous "clear blue water" that distinguishes it from New Labour.

And some believe it is pointless trying too hard.

There is a view that politics is locked in a post-ideological phase where debates over socialism, the market, liberalism and the like are redundant.

The argument states that we are all agreed on the sort of capitalist society we want, and the only issue left is who can manage it best.

Sooner or later New Labour will mess it up, as all governments do, and all the Tories need to do is ensure that, when that time comes, they are in a fit enough state to persuade people that they can once again be trusted to drag it back on track.

See also:

19 Aug 02 | Politics
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18 Jul 02 | Politics
15 Aug 02 | Politics
24 Jan 02 | Politics
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