Iain Duncan Smith. A man of whom Churchill might have said “A quiet man – with a lot to be quiet about”. Poor chap. Elected leader by the Tory faithful, not because of who he was, but because of who he wasn’t, he has the impossible job of controlling a party intent on self-destruction.
If IDS tries to raise issues of social justice, the rabid right barks him down. If he tries to placate the old guard, the modernisers start muttering to the press about the need to move forward. There is no way anyone could square this particular vicious circle; the sane and insane wings of the party just can’t be reconciled.
I was listening to the poor chap on the radio tonight (Thursday 7th November). He tried to deflect questioning about his failing leadership by explaining that what people really wanted was new policies to get our public services back on their feet. He is, of course, quite right; our public services are woefully underfunded, and need huge investment. But he seems blissfully unaware that it was the Tories who brought our schools and hospitals to their knees in the first place.
The confusion at the heart of the Tory party was well illustrated by Theresa May in her conference speech. She managed to alienate the Thatcherite reactionaries by calling for inclusiveness and modernisation, at the same time rubbing the modernisers up the wrong way by attacking John Major’s government. Nonetheless, her speech was judged a triumph. In a way it was. No one could have done better.
Let’s remember that this was the conference where the Tory leader revealed plans to offer charities a major role in providing social services. He seems determined to subsidise the rich while penalising the poor. The Tories’ proposals to pay 60% of the cost of private healthcare will create a two-tier health service. This will not create the extra beds we need or improve the quality of healthcare patients receive.
The same argument applies to schools. If parents are going to be encouraged to take their children out of state schools and put them into private schools, we will simply end up with a two-tier education system, with the poorest pupils forced to go to the worst schools, while those who can afford it top up their vouchers and go off to private schools. Reward the rich, penalise the poor. That’s the message from this year’s Tory conference.
The Liberal Democrats have no ideological objection to private sector hospitals and schools – as long as they are available for everyone. Ideally, we want to see a mix of public sector, private sector and mutual service providers – funded by public money, free at the point of delivery, with the public able to choose where they go.
Public perception of the Lib Dems is slowly changing. In October, two polls showed that voters believe Charles Kennedy would make a better Prime Minister than IDS. And as the Conservatives’ ‘who would you vote for?’ rating slips, the Lib Dems’ rises. One October poll had both parties on 24%.
The same polls provide evidence that the Lib Dems more in tune with voters – and more trusted to take the right decisions than either Labour or the Conservatives.
Charles Kennedy has pointed out that there is no law which says the Tories have to recover. Liberals know this from their own history, of course; for hundreds of years power switched from Whigs (forerunners of the Liberals) to Tories and back, much as it does now between Labour and Tory. But there was no Labour party then. The last Liberal Prime Minister was Lloyd George, who led the party as Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922
Of course you would expect us Lib Dems to be talking up our prospects – but we are not alone this time. Steven Norris has warned of the possibility of our pushing the Tories into third place at the next election. The traditionally loyal Daily Telegraph described last Tuesday (5th November) as “the most desperate day in the history of the Conservative Party”. In a mock epitaph for the Tories, it predicted Duncan Smith’s resignation within a “few weeks”, followed by the party splitting in two.
In The Times, Peter Riddell said IDS’s message was that of a weak, not a strong leader. Even the ultra-loyalist Daily Mail has dubbed the Tories the “hari-kari party”, warning that if they did not shape up they risked becoming the third party in British politics. The Guardian reports that this view is shared by “senior Tories, including peers are seriously speculating that they will come third behind the Liberal Democrats at the next election.”
There’s no credible or responsible opposition coming from the Conservatives on public services. And none either on the key international question of the moment – Iraq. Even on Europe – the issue which has obsessed them so long – they are silent. Yet there’s a huge unease in every corner of the country about the Labour Government’s actions on all these issues. There’s more need than ever before for responsible clear alternative policies which will chime with the hopes and concerns of the majority of the population. It is the role of the Liberal Democrats to provide that role for the months and years ahead.
When the Prime Minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with the President of the United States, and the leader of the opposition is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Prime Minister, where do you turn if you have the vaguest of doubts about the wisdom of a military escapade in Iraq?
When Labour-backed PFI schemes are capsizing on a regular basis, and the Tories are saying “That’s one of our ideas, that is!” where do you turn?
When Labour can’t bring themselves to voice their support for Europe, and the Tories daren’t voice their opposition, where do you turn?
The party who have a voice on these issues, and who are increasingly speaking for the people of Britain, are the Liberal Democrats.