June 18, 2001

The Conservative Leadership Circus
Minority of one

I must make an admission; I was a William Hague fan. I also thought that the Tories would pick up more than one seat in the election. A complete stalemate was not what I, or anyone else, predicted. Who'd have thought it? Now William Hague has gone, and the Conservatives have to choose another leader. So as a service to my readers I will try to go through the leading candidates for Tory leader and, for my American readers, explain who they are. For my English readers I will try to look at their views on foreign policy.


Kenneth Clarke is known for one thing, and that is Europe. This would be a shame as he has been a rather able cabinet minister, even if terminally lazy. He has held two of the four great positions of state, the Home Office and the Treasury. And although no economic libertarian, his views on the economy are far more Thatcherite than those of the older generation of Tory "wets" who are backing him. As I said, though, the issue that defines him is Europe. To understand this, one has to understand the genesis of Ken Clarke. When he was a student Ken Clarke fell under the spell of Oswald Moseley, the old fascist leader. Indeed, when he led the Cambridge university Tories (which he did for eight weeks) he invited Oswald Moseley to speak not just once, but twice. He also led a purge of Jewish students from the Conservative association, including his future senior Cabinet colleague, Michael Howard. These days it is said the Michael Howard resigned and that he was expelled, sorry he resigned, because of his anti-free speech views and not because of his Judaism. Ken Clarke lost most of his fascist patina, nowadays showing no trace of anti-Semitism, giving up on the Corporatism which infected the middle ground of British politics as well as the black shirts, and showing a socially liberal streak. There is one area of Moseleyite thought that he has not given up on, and that is Europe.


Ken Clarke is a passionate pro-European, and has been so throughout his political career. Oswald Moseley, after the Second World War, became the first British politician to call for a federal Europe (it may seem strange today, but European unity was a rallying cry for the far right, until voters turned against it). Oswald Moseley called for "Europe a nation, Africa an Empire," and the symbolism and rhetoric of the post war fascist movement represented this. The idea was two-fold, firstly a United Europe would be forced to develop the only unifying factor open to it now that culture, religion and language were gone, and that was race. Secondly, a United Europe would mean that the European governments would not have to rely on the United States to protect them against the Soviet Union. Ken Clarke's passionate pro-Europe stance can be traced to this. Doubtless, the motives have changed, although the cause remains the same. As long as Europe is the most important foreign policy issue facing Britain, and as long as Ken Clarke is so wrong on this subject, Ken Clarke must be seen as the worst possible Conservative leader.

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Another candidate, although short lived, is Ann Widdecombe. She has rather scuttled her own ship by complaining about "backbiting" from the camp of Michael Portillo, although one thinks about heat and kitchens when one hears politicians complaining about rough play. She is known for her sharp authoritarianism, which is good because no one really knows where she stands on issues like Europe. It is believed that she is either mildly pro-Europe or she is truly ambivalent on the issue. As it looks like she is about to withdraw from the race and back Ken Clarke (which may be a clue) then this may be a moot case.


Then we have John Redwood. John is a man of the right, the man who more than anyone can claim to have seen in privatisation. A creative and efficient man, he has a sharply cold public persona which together with his hard right views tend to alienate the voters. He is a friend of Newt Gingrich, which really says it all. His "Conservative Populism" was the inspiration behind Hague's approach, although neither man would admit it now. An advanced Euro-realist he would pull out of the European Union if given a free hand, although his attitude towards the Special Relationship is of the knee-jerk supportiveness that one expects of the British right. John Redwood, however, is unlikely to run – saving for himself a role as the Eurosceptic king maker.


Iain Duncan-Smith probably will run for the leadership. He is one of the more interesting candidates. Unlike most of the others, he is a "real person" who has served in the army and worked in the City of London. He is a Eurosceptic, and the only one of the candidates who voted against the Maastricht treaty. He is also defence spokesman and as such has opposed some of the more blatantly stupid British interventions such as Sierra Leone and East Timor. It is his attitude on America that worries. He is, like John Redwood, very friendly with Republicans on the Hill, and he based his very effective opposition to the European Defence Initiative on the fact that it would cause friction with our "natural ally" America. He is very much wedded to the Special Relationship. On top of that, he is bald, and so was Hague.


Then there is David Davis. Popular in the parliamentary party, he is the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Of all the candidates (with the obvious exception of Ken Clarke), he is the most critical of the special relationship with the Americans. He is also a hard-core Eurosceptic (despite the fact that he steered the Maastricht treaty through Parliament when a Government whip) and an English nationalist. Unfortunately, he is a total unknown outside Parliament, and the Conservative Party is not really into taking another risk on an unknown.


Finally, there is Michael Portillo. Like Ken Clarke, and unlike the others, he is a "big beast," familiar with the public. The problem is we all know who he is, but what is he for? When he was a minister in John Major's government (for Defence) he privately used to say that we should withdraw from the European Union. At the same time, he helped push forward the European Defence Initiative. In opposition, he has been steadfast in opposing Economic and Monetary Union, but he has been keen to keep cosy with Ken Clarke. The basis of his political belief was his early years in Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Here he picked up a rather gloomy and elitist version of Conservatism from his tutor Maurice Cowling. It was also a rather unprincipled version of Conservatism, and so for those who believe that Portillo will be steadfast in his defence of British sovereignty, think again. As one person close to the Peterhouse set once told me "nations do die, you know." This is not to say that Portillo only cares about himself, that is not true, but he is not very keen to lay bare what he does care about. He is even positioning himself as the leader who could "accept defeat" in the Euro referendum.


The Conservative Party has actually quite a future ahead of it. The Labour Party has promised to move heaven and earth on public services and not to raise taxes. The problem is that they have already raised taxes sharply, and this in a boom time. The combination of a recession, no matter how mild, sky-high public expectations and greater resistance to tax increases could be deadly. Of course, no one really cares about foreign policy. However, the future of the European project could depend on the state of schools in the Midlands and hospitals in outer London – and on how much hair the next leader of the Conservative Party has.

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