Conservative party managers might well be forgiven for costing anxious glances over their shoulders as they journey to Blackpool for their annual conference. For the older ones amongst them, and for those with an awareness of history, the recollection of the same journey forty-three years ago will cause warning bells to jangle alarmingly.
On the opening day of the 1963 Conservative conference, Harold Macmillan was admitted to hospital in London with an acute prostate gland infection. For weeks he had been agonising as to whether it was time for him to retire to enable a new leader to be installed before the forthcoming election which had to held within twelve months. A notorious hypochondriac, Macmillan was convinced - incorrectly - that he had cancer and, two days later, from his hospital bed, he resigned as Prime Minister and Conservative party leader. Ironically he lived another twenty-three years, making a brilliant maiden speech in the House of Lords at the age of ninety.
The party conference was thrown into complete disarray and, in the words of one party official, became instead an American Convention with leading figures throwing their hats into the ring and promoting their leadership candidatures. Those of us in other parties watched in amazement as Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler and Reginald Maudling jockeyed for position in the full glare of live television, seemingly oblivious to the disastrous effect their antics had on the watching voters.
In the course of five brief days, Hailsham, who had hitherto been the front runner for the eventual succession to Macmillan - and, indeed, originally Macmillan's own choice - destroyed his chances. A curious character and a man of great intellect but without political finesse or sensitivity, Hailsham had become party chairman in 1957 and at the end of that year's party conference produced a handbell which he preceeded to ring furiously, with a seraphic but slightly manic grin.
Immediately following Macmillan's resignation, and without any thought of the propriety of a seemly pause in the light of the Prime Minister's apparently serious illness, Hailsham announced that he would renounce his peerage and seek the party leadership as Mr Quintin Hogg. In the eyes of his peers his "exhibitionism" and his "excitable behaviour" made him "temperamentally unsuitable" for the highest office in the land. His conference performance finished his chances. He had visibly self-destructed.
In those far off days of mysterious cabals and the usual channels, the Conservative party rapidly decided that only one person could unite the party and on 17 October, out of nowhere, the fourteenth Earl of Home became party leader and, two days later, Prime Minister. He too had to renounce his peerage, to sit in the House of Commons as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It was a short-term tenure of high office. He lost the election in October 1964 and resigned as leader just twenty months later.
Back in Blackpool this week, with the party faithful in the country having retained its direct vote in the leadership election, the different candidates are geared up to glad hand the delegates and to press the flesh of their electorate. Whatever the policy agenda for the week, and whatever is going on officially, the conference will effectively be hi-jacked by the leadership election. The media will see to that.
The five candidates are very much aware that their performance and their tactics this week could make or break their chances. Too quiet, and they will be regarded as incapable of holding their own in the electoral cauldron; very brash and they will be thought to be too superficial to take on government heavyweights. They have a difficult tightrope to walk.
Leaders are, of course, important, but the future of the Conservative party depends on much more than the charisma and capabilities of a single individual. I sense that after three short lived attempts to remake the party in the image of its ageing and embattled membership, the party is asking itself a very different question: who can make the changes necessary to enable the Conservative party to challenge effectively for power.
In the 1950s I collected football programmes. In those days Preston North End had probably the most boring front page in the land: in bold type it proclaimed "There'll always be an England - and Harrison's bread." I always took that trite slogan as having a political parallel - there'll always be an England and the Conservative party. But today, Harrison's bread is no more and, in terms of the likelihood of future office, the Conservative party is on the ropes.
Faced with this unpalatable fact, the party appears to have come to terms at last with the curious paradox of the Thatcher years: that its very electoral success brought a fatal complacency. It was a phenomenon of its time. It fed on the miseries of the declining years of the Callaghan government, and that cannot be replicated. In addition, Mrs Thatcher was blessed with helpful opponents - not least Arthur Scargill - and neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown conceivably fall into that category. Only a leadership attuned to the different social malaise of the twenty-first century can revitalise the party. Hankering after a return to the 1980s is a recipe for a fourth defeat.
In the midst of calls for modernisation, for realism and for One Nation Conservatism, and faced with a Labour government that is arguably much more right-wing than Macmillan's Conservative administration in the 1950s, I offer the contenders, free and gratis, two thoughts that could give their party much needed political identity. First, to expound a coherent strategy for the ending of the allied occupation of Iraq which would develop Robin Cook's belief in a moral dimension in foreign policy. His words were much derided at the time but I believe that subsequent events have demonstrated their relevance. It is surely, in theory at least, a highly Conservative concept.
Second, to develop the fundamental concept of the strong neighbourhood as the basis for a secure community. What could be more in the Conservative tradition than the vibrant village - urban as well as rural - each with its individual character and its local identity. The soulless planning policies of the post war years and the destruction of municipal government have undermined the ability of local communities to inhibit antisocial behaviour.
No imposed set of heavy-handed laws and legal restrictions can change behaviour but a deliberate policy of creating neighbourhoods which enable people to feel strong has a real chance of success. Real communities create the conditions for secure living. Ally this to a thorough revival of local democracy, in which Councillors once again have real authority, and you have a strategy for a self-sufficiency which is surely in the mainstream of Conservative philosophy.
So, on with the Blackpool Belles! The beauty parade awaits. But remember 1963 - the party faithful will be listening, and the phantom bellringer may be waiting in the wings. As was the case forty-two years ago, the next few days may well make and break a reputation or two.
29 September 2005