The Tories may be heading for electoral meltdown, but Richard Cockett argues that no one should underestimate their ability to turn opposition to their advantage.
The Conservative party tends to encounter electoral meltdown every half-century or so - 1846, 1906, 1945 ... and 1997? During the 20th century, these dates have followed prolonged periods of Conservative electoral dominance, with the party divided in each period on a major question of policy - tariff reform, the welfare state ... and Europe. So, many Tories are not facing the coming election with their customary relish.
However, the differences between past electoral fiascos and the party's likely defeat in 1997 are as striking as the similarities. The Conservative party was founded to oppose change, or at least to manage it in an orderly and judicious manner - "the party of order and stability" as opposed to "the party of progress or reform" in J. S. Mill's classic formulation of British politics.The defeats of 1906 and 1945, by opponents in the full bloom of their most radically reconstructive phases, did not threaten that role.
But with the turning upside down of Mill's political polarity in the past few years the Conservatives are now suffering an identity crisis. The party faces a terrifying prospect, an alternative government which promises to be more conservative than the Conservatives. Every week Tony Blair removes another windmill Tories have spent lifetimes tilting at. Last month shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, oozing gravitas, effectively buried forever the prospect of any coherent, left-of-centre politics, refusing to make any spending or tax commitments - beyond what the self-styled "canny Ken" has offered - for most of the first term of a new Blair government.
The glue that has held the Conservative party together is resistance. The party has always been more comfortable identifying the enemies of stability and continuity than advocating positive programmes of its own. Those Conservatives who wanted to embrace change and modernisation have usually contemplated ditching the name altogether. After 1945 Macmillan flirted with renaming the party the New Democratic party or the Union party. Thatcherism, with its restless ambition and Maoist preoccupation with change for change's sake, also sat uncomfortably within the tradition. Margaret Thatcher once said: "We are not a 'Conservative' party; we are a party of innovation, of imagination, of liberty, of striking out in new directions, of renewed national pride and a novel sense of leadership. That's not 'Conservative', is it!" Indeed it is not, which is why she eventually so comprehensively misjudged most of her colleagues and backbenchers.
The forces of revolution and reform - the cold war, the communist threat, domestic socialism and the union - that provided the glue for the party of stability have fallen away. So John Major's government has engaged in the desperate pursuit of a motley assortment of beggars, Germans, Eurocrats, ravers and single mothers to replace the enemies of old.
But they are poor replacements. The "demon eyes" campaign is a clear symbol of desperation. The electorate is as unlikely to buy the "devil in Mr Blair" thesis as it was to believe Winston Churchill's slur on Clement Attlee's Labour party in 1945 as a "Gestapo" in waiting. It was too much to ask people to imagine nice little Clem breaking down their door in leather boots and regulation mackintosh.
So how does all this affect the future of conservatism, and the Conservative party? Some right-of-centre parties, like the Italian Christian Democrats, have failed to survive the passing of the cold war. (And don't mention the fate of the Canadian Conservatives in Central Office.) That will not happen to the Conservatives, neither will there be any obvious splits. Parties are created by the electoral system, and unless proportional representation is introduced the parties will not fracture on the European model. But the identity crisis is real enough.
Broadly speaking, there are two roads ahead for the Conservative party. One is to retreat into a narrowly nationalistic, anti (even non) European, free market Thatcherite agenda that fetishes the market. This presents a very narrow economic definition of national success, but plenty of scope for the politics of resistance.
The more courageous course is to become more like a European Christian Democratic party, arguing for a free market within Europe, tempered by the sort of social and cultural considerations that more thoughtful Conservatives like David Willetts have identified as necessary for the successful functioning of a market economy.
An unfettered market in a modern polity consumes itself, producing the likes of Cedric Brown and Neil Hamilton. Christian Democrat-style Conservatives will be better placed to deal with the unresolved problems of the current free market consensus lying in wait during the next 20 or 30 years.
Yet this analysis of the party's possible future may exaggerate the Conservatives' differences. For the first time since Mrs Thatcher took office, they are relatively united, except on Europe - the issue that dares not speak its name - which Labour will be equally reluctant to mention when the campaign starts.
After the election, events may overtake the issue anyway, if Economic and Monetary Union has to be indefinitely postponed because not enough countries meet the unworkable convergence criteria laid down by Brussels. The course of the European issue within the party will be decided by the composition of the parliamentary party after the election. That depends on how many pro-European MPs hang on to their seats to balance the trend among the younger intake of MPs who have to be much more Eurosceptic than their elders to appease the often militantly anti-European constituency associations. From the Conservative point of view, that balance will be the most important result of the election after winning or losing power itself.
What is equally certain is that for every Conservative who resents relinquishing the baubles of office in the event of defeat, there will be another looking forward with undisguised glee to a spell of opposition. If the Conservative party has ever been good at anything, it is refashioning itself in the wake of electoral failure. The party has usually coped with the process of creative destruction much better than its historic Labour or Liberal opponents, who have tended to greet opposition with a long drawn-out agony of fratricidal wrangling or ideological self-annihilation. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have played to their strengths of self-discipline and intellectual rectitude in opposition, confining self-examination or even self-immolation to the privacy of the committee room or musty think tank basement rather than parading it all in public, as Labour has tended to do. Even now, the younger and more intellectually zealous Conservatives are shaping up for what many hope will be a final reckoning on Europe, where the issue can finally be debated, without the restraints of office, with the gloves off. Short of calling in the Spice Girls for ad hoc political advice, the think tanks will be heavily involved in this debate and there are rumours that Mrs Thatcher will also play a major role by founding a new think tank as a domestic arm of the Thatcher Foundation. All this will be excellent spectator sport, which is why it sends shivers down the spine of the average God-fearing backbencher.
However bad the election turns out to be, the Conservatives have always used opposition to their advantage. After the two traumas of the postwar period, 1945 and 1974, the party was enjoying a generation of power again within six and five years respectively. Such are the rewards of pragmatic opportunism.
Richard Cockett is lecturer in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.