Last weekend I spoke at a Tory dinner in a village hall in the
Malvern Hills. Towards the end, the chairman called a vote on the
It came out like this: Kenneth Clarke 45; William Hague 15; and John
Redwood four. Any abstentions - and there were a few since about 80 were
present - were not recorded.
This vote reflected, though perhaps exaggerated, the consistently strong
support Mr Clarke has had outside the Commons where so far MPs have the
sole say in electing a leader. By now the poll may well be academic. But
what is not academic is the problem expressed by a farmer who came up to
me afterwards. He and his wife, he said, were obviously the youngest
present. I would judge they were around 40. ’What’, he asked, ’is our
new leader going to do about that?’
It was a very good question in a branch which prides itself on having
the oldest active supporter - and election teller - in the business. She
is 100 and, bless her, came to listen to me. Like all the scores of
constituency dinners I have addressed since I ’retired’ seven years ago,
this was predominantly a pensioners’ affair. To be blunt, the
Conservatives have become the geriatric party.
Too much should not be made of this since, ironically, one of the Tory
legacies is a much more competitive and hard-working Britain which puts
much greater career pressures on young, would-be politicians who have
not made politics their life since university. But one of the prime
tasks of a new Tory leader is to attract lively young activists who
recognise that, without the bedrock of vigorous local support, the party
will be severely handicapped in re-building its fortunes.
The overriding task, however, is to unite behind its new leader. Unless
it does that, it will get nowhere and not only fail itself but also the
nation. With a majority of 179 and dictatorial tendencies, Prime
Minister Tony Blair needs fierce, unrelenting and inspired opposition.
How the middle Thatcher years would have benefited from it!
The Tories’ problem is desperate. If they continue to row over Europe
when they cannot do anything about the issue, they will present the
Liberal Democrats with the best chance they have ever had of supplanting
them as HM Loyal Opposition. That thought has occurred to some Tories in
the Malvern Hills. The grass roots are crying out for unity of
Without it, the Tories are unsaleable. Without it, they will not be
re-invigorated or secure young blood. And without it, all the PROs in
the world will be wasting their time. No self-respecting public
relations firm should take them on until they show they have learned
this elementary lesson.