Ten years ago the Conservative Party suffered its worst ever defeat under universal suffrage. It wasn’t just the seats lost or the abysmal vote share, but also the national sense of joy at our humiliation. Were you up for Portillo? That was the question on smiling lips up on happy faces across the land.
Well, I wasn’t up for Portillo. I’d already crawled to my bed in a state of shock – not at the results, but at my reaction. You see, I’d long drifted away from the party – out of disgust at the Poll Tax, the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, the ERM debacle and back to basics. But oddly it was that election night in 1997 that convinced me that, in the timeless words of Iggy Pop, “I am a Conservative.”
The next morning I was off work, feeling sick as the Blairs marched into Downing Street. But amid the triumphal entry some late election results filtered through – not for the general election but for the local elections, also held the previous day. And guess what? We made gains!
Modest gains to be sure, and from a pathetically low base, but gains nonetheless. It was a tiny consolation prize, barely noticed at the time and long since forgotten, but the start of something much bigger. In subsequent years we would overtake the Lib Dems and then Labour to become the first party of local government. While MPs squabbled in Westminster, the quiet competence of our councillors - notably my own county's Sandy Bruce-Lockhart - rebuilt our base in the country.
That’s why I’m putting them first in my list of why the last ten years have not been wasted. I’ll leave it to others to pick over the wrong turns and dead ends of our time in the wilderness – this is a personal account of the upside: not only the strange survival of the Conservative Party, but also the way it continued to influence the destiny of our nation despite being out of power.
These days William Hague is one of our most popular politicians. It was not always thus. As leader he faced a storm of abuse that would have withered a lesser man. However, the appearance of calm was deceptive; beneath the waterline he was paddling furiously to rescue the party from the consequences of a ruinously expensive election campaign. When people ask why he didn’t do this, that or the other as leader, it’s because he was too busy saving us from bankruptcy!
Better outside the tent…
The threat of bankruptcy wasn’t just financial. In the early years of his premiership, Tony Blair held the nation in thrall. His big tent politics threatened to swallow up all opposition – it certainly swallowed Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Paddy Ashdown. But William Hague was not to be taken in. His finest hours came with his awe-inspiring demolition job of the Government’s fatuous annual report, one the finest Parliamentary performances of recent times – and just maybe the moment when the nation began to see the truth about New Labour.