Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who was the best tory leader?

Over at Hagley Road to Ladywood Claude is running a short series on who was the best party leader in the last twenty. He's done the Lib Dems and now he's on to the Tories. I have to say, seeing the array of 'talent' on offer it was difficult to know what to say.

It then occurred to me that although all the Tory leaders of the last twenty years have essentially been failures (Cameron has his dismissal to come, so the judgement of history will have to wait on him). How do you judge which leader of a party you fundamentally disagree with, that has been going from bad to worse over that entire period was 'best'?

I thought the best way to approach the question, which has been bugging me all night, might be to have a look at the options at each leadership election and think about whether the party's choice was a sound one at each junction.

There have been six leadership elections in twenty years and I'm only going to look at the main contenders.

1990: Major vs Heseltine

This leadership election was a choice between dynamism or consolidation, with the word dynamism being used in this context for bonkers. Whilst Major was in one sense the Thatcher-continuity candidate his premiership actually marked the end of an ultra-aggressive period of government. There's no guarantee that Heseltine would have wanted to go in that direction.

Heseltine may well have lost the 1992 general election to Kinnock as I remember a good number of people felt sorry for Major, something that even the softest of hearts would have found difficult to feel about Tarzan. If he had won though I've a feeling he would have been even worse than Major.

1995: Major vs Redwood

Major was not universally loved though and faced a 'stalking horse' challenge from fringe candidate Redwood. The fact Redwood managed to get the support of 89 MPs was quite an achievement but in the big scheme of things this was not a difficult challenge to see off but was an early warning sign of the internal divisions that the party would suffer for the next ten years.

1997: Hague vs Clarke

After the inevitable landslide victory of Labour in 1997 Major was no doubt happy to stand down as Tory leader. Who was to be the John Connor who lead the Tory resistance out of the post-apocalyptic nightmare?

Pro-Europe Clarke was not a natural choice to lead the party in an age of the Referendum Party and splits on the question, but he had two overwhelming advantages over Hague. He had substance and he was from the more progressive wing of the party which would have been more in step with the spirit of 1997.

From memory Hague chose to fight the next election on the basis of how reactionary the Tory Party was and the electorate rightly rejected him. Clarke may well have fared better at the polls but the party itself would have hated him.

2001: IDS vs Clarke vs Portillo

After Hague the Tories thought that perhaps they should do a Major and go bland again with IDS. However the 'quiet man' faced down two progressive challengers who both thought accommodating to the age of New Labour was preferable to living in denial. Either one would have made a better leader, but neither would have been acceptable to all party members and would have widened the splits in the party.

IDS was a disaster, so from my perspective I'm happy they chose him, but he was undeniably the most right wing candidate of the three. Portillo was a bit too fluffy these days and was loathed and despised by the homophobic tendency, even though he's not gay. Clarke was despised by the anti-Europe mob, and still is for all I know.

2003: Howard or no one

So selecting non-entities hadn't worked, nor had having actual elections, so this time the Tories went a coronation of a creaking, reminder of the Thatcher years. Howard consistently, perhaps unfairly, gave the electorate the creeps.

He didn't work either so, if there was a choice between Howard or no one, perhaps no one would have done better. The hyper reactionary 'are you thinking what we're thinking' campaign did nothing to reassure the public that the Tories did not have evil on their minds.

2005: Cameron vs Davis

They'd tried emphasising their hateful politics and that hadn't really worked out for them so the Tories at this leadership election at last had a chance to reject the old ways without having to vote for anyone from the left of the party.

The choice between two shallow nobodies ironically marked a change in the Tory fortunes. The party's choice was between what sort of no-one they wanted. Davis was the kind of vacuous fool who said the first thing that came into his head, Cameron worshipped at the alter of vacuity and promised a crafted and well polished shallowness that mimicked modernity.

I suspect Davis would had found he was leading a party that did not want to be led, whilst Cameron has managed to subdue the unruly factions and is, for the first time in twenty years, leading a united party to the polls. It wont last, but the fact he's managed to gain a truce within the party is nothing short of a miracle.

However, if he does not gain a proper majority at the general election after all the potential that the situation presents he will be judged to have fallen well short of what the Tories expect of a proper leader. However, they haven't had one of those for some time, so they should be used to it by now.

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