Cruising for ideas

If the whole Tory Party came out tomorrow, it would do nothing for its standing at the ballot box.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Alan Duncan, the Tory front-bench spokesman on foreign affairs, is gay.

This non-revelation was offered in an interview with The Times (London), complete with a picture of a relaxed Duncan, smiling cheerily with his hands thrust behind his head. Apparently his disclosure had been welcomed by Tory Party leader Iain Duncan Smith as marking a helpful step along the road to a new, modern Conservative Party (1).

But Duncan’s coming out showed up the ineptitude of the Tories’ desperate attempts to ‘modernise’. This is less a purposeful reform of a political party than the adolescent experiments of a group of people who want to join in the world of politics, but can’t quite get the hang of it.

‘The Conservative Party has taken a long time to catch up with the world as it is. Nobody under 35 gives a damn about being gay these days but they feel repelled by people who sneer or condemn’, Duncan said – representing himself as at ease with modernity, and in tune with the under-35s. ‘Living in disguise as a politician in the modern world simply isn’t an option. The Tory view has always been, “we don’t mind but don’t say”. Well, that doesn’t work any more.’

The Times commented that ‘Mr Duncan is hopeful that his action will help to bring his party closer into line with modern Britain’.

Modernisers in the Tory Party think that the party’s historically unprecedented isolation from the electorate is the result of its stuffy Tory-boy image. Their attempts to ‘modernise’ the Tories are pure spin – it is all about appearing open-minded and cosmopolitan, trying to pull off PR stunts that will project a dynamic image. But these efforts all look embarrassingly clumsy and forced.

One recent issue of the Spectator magazine, focusing on the Tories’ attempt to attract ‘women, blacks, gays’, pictured Iain Duncan Smith in safari gear, a net grasped in both hands, smiling towards a black woman, a man in a wheelchair and a gay man. That the Spectator, voice of the traditional Tory elite, views these initiatives with such disdain, indicates that Iain Duncan Smith’s modernisation project is likely to weaken support from the Tory core vote. Yet it is as unlikely to attract support from other sections of the population.

‘The quest is on for blacks, women, gays: anybody, in short, who departs from the social, ethnic or sexual conventions of the regulation Conservative Party candidate of the last two centuries’, the Spectator reported – referencing Tory moderniser Francis Maude, who has argued that the party should use positive discrimination to get more women MPs, and one front-bench Tory MP who said that ‘It is absolutely important and would send out such a message if we could find a really good black candidate in a safe Home Counties seat’ (2).

Thus we have seen the unceremonious dispatch of old school David Davis as party chairman, allegedly because he was getting in the way of modernisation. Davis has been replaced with the relatively hip (by Tory standards) woman Theresa May, who is famous in the Commons for wearing very pointy shoes.

And until the party manages to attract some more gay MPs, they have obviously decided to make the best of the few they do have – stand up, Alan Duncan.

All these measures look tokenistic at best, and disingenuous at worst. Trying to fit up ‘a really good black candidate in a safe Home Counties seat’ does not, by any standards, equal cosmopolitan openmindedness. And the David Davis affair was a shambles – Davis was told of his demotion while on holiday in Florida, but he still returned to take charge of the party, as other top Tory figures (including his replacement) were taking their holidays.

Tory modernisers were patting themselves on the back about the response to Alan Duncan’s coming out. Duncan says that he received more than 300 emails and 100 telephone calls of support: ‘It feels like the dam of prejudice has burst.’ Theresa May commented that: ‘There are many people who will say that this shows a Conservative Party that has moved on. It’s always been an open, decent and tolerant party, but this is a very upfront example of that.’ (3)

That such a fatuous revelation could be heralded as a new dawn attests to the emptiness of the Conservative Party. Even if the whole Tory Party came out tomorrow it would do nothing for its standing at the ballot box – as Duncan himself said, nobody gives a damn about whether politicians are gay or not.

What is absent from all this spin about modernisation is any sense of what the Tory Party is supposed to stand for – in terms of politics, that is. Even within the Tory Party, some recognise this: former (pre-modern) shadow cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe rebuked Duncan with the comment: ‘Wakey, wakey. The electorate are waiting to hear from us, and not about sexuality.’ (4) Instead of coming up with anything substantial, Tory politicians have developed a habitual wanderlust, travelling in circles around Europe in search of some policy ideas.

Until they find something, their attempts to become ‘modern’ and ‘in touch’ are likely to become more cringeworthy.

Read on:

Whoever wins, it won’t be a Tory, by Mick Hume

Torn Tories, by Sandy Starr

Screaming blue murder, by Sandy Starr

‘Teflon Tony’ and the Tories, by Rob Lyons

(1) The Times (London), 29 July 2002

(2) Minority pursuit, Spectator, 20 July 2002

(3) The Times (London), 30 July 2002

(4) The Times (London), 30 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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