Labourites are pinching themselves. Out of the blue, the Tories are tearing themselves to bits. It is not that there is an ongoing spat between the Portillistas and the Hagueites – Brown and Blair all over again. It is what their split says about the Tories’ capacity to put themselves back in the political driving seat.
Blair and Brown agree fundamentally on the ‘Third Way’ (a label that has been dropped) and, equally important, agree on the future shape of Labour as a looser, progressive coalition.
They have their differences of emphasis, notably on Europe. But the fight between them or at least between their respective entourages is not ideological; it’s personal.
The Tories are split over the question of who they are. Portillo showed in his speech at the party conference that in the wilderness he had re-thought the cultural bases of the party. Free markets and free love go hand in hand. He did not quite put it that way of course but partly as a result of his outing as a man with a gay past he has sharpened his awareness of ‘diversity’.
Hague tried to reconstruct the Tories less on the basis of beliefs than a reflection of the public’s gut instincts, as registered by surveys and polls.
These point in the direction of a tougher line on crime and punishment, soft pedalling on equal opportunities, dislike of immigration, opposition to European integration etc. Hague is a very effective articulator of deeply-felt prejudices. But such ‘right wing’ sentiments do not drive general election votes. There are large numbers of Labour supporters with such views who will not detach.
They will vote Labour because they like Labour’s views on spending as do large numbers of Tory supporters. Hague’s populism has not yet extended to recognising the public’s appetite for more and better public services.
So the Tories pull in opposite directions – liberal free market in one corner, reactionary free market in the other. You don’t have to be consistent to succeed in politics, but it helps. Labour meanwhile sits and watches successive polls showing their lead getting back to pre-petrol levels.
No wonder the word is that the election will now be as soon as April.
– David Walker writes for The Guardian.
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