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Graeme Archer: How well have we got on with our ex-leaders?

20070627exleaders_2 Graeme AGraeme_archerrcher, a blogger and activist in Hackney, reflects on the emotional wrench with which Tony Blair leaves office and reflects on our own history of relationships with Conservative Party leaders.

How do you get on with your ex? Something most of us have to struggle with at one time or another. What about if you have a string of ex-s? Are they banished from your consciousness, expunged from your frontal lobe, hidden from mental view? Do you think fondly of them now and then, remember the good times, have a wry smile at one or other of their foibles? Or do you grimace with horror, feel momentarily dirty, shake yourself like a dog in a mud bath, and thank the Lord that they're not mucking up your life any more?

Like it or not, there's an overlap between how individuals view their ex-lovers, and how parties view their ex-leaders. More relevantly, it's a two-way thing. What your ex-leader thinks of you matters just as much as the reverse. Probably more.

So on this momentous morning of New Clunking Hope, when Scotsmen all around the globe raise a wee dram of salty porridge in anticipation of the wave of Calvinism shortly to be unleashed on this godless land, our Tam O'Shanters shaking with glee at the thought [that's enough Scottishness - ed] OK, now that Blair has finally gone, how will the Labour Party feel about him? And he it? And how have we Conservatives variously treated, and been treated by, those who have worn the yoke of Party Leader?

I'm not really fit to assess how Labour and Brown will view Blair. I would guess that Blair views them with unmitigated horror. Did they make you feel dirty, Tony? Is that why you inflicted on us a government that mixed incompetence with corruption in equal measure? It is a new dawn, is it not, and looking back on your time since '97 we can see thousands of dawns of missed opportunities. You will be remembered for this wretched war and, if anyone peers more closely through the miasmic gloom of historical perspective, for not changing much for the better. Go away, you failed poodle, you undeliverer of dreams. You were the date who swept the Labour Party off its feet, but who turned out to be a hopeless dreamer when you weren't being actively malicious.

What about us? Are Conservatives in a better psychological place vis-a-vis former leaders than the socialists? I think we probably are. Take Michael Howard. He just beams with an avuncular decency. His legacy, whichever wing of Battleship Tory one occupies, is that of a saviour. In fact he wasn't so much a lover, as that tried and trusted friend who picks you up when you think you can't face another day, so tired of being alone are you, so fed up with the bruises of constant battle. Without Howard, I doubt there would be a Conservative Party in existence today. Do you remember his first PPB? When he said "Hello, I am Michael Howard" and you just fell of your sofa in relief that you could bear to watch a leader of the party without hands plastered to the front of your face?

I doubt even his closest friends would suggest that Iain Duncan Smith ought ever to have become leader of our party, but he has become a man reborn since liberated from the bonds of office. He's the guy about whom one can honestly say "We should never have gone out with each other, but honestly, he's a really nice bloke". And then feel a bit of a pang when we see how much more successful he is without us. The work of the Centre for Social Justice, Iain's championing of the issues concerning what Guardian readers vaguely refer to as the underclass but who are, of course, the people who live next door more than they are an abstract concept, provides us with both the moral anger that a party requires in its stomach (it is not acceptable for people to live like this) and a set of ideas for tackling poverty that will be taken very seriously by our theme-setters and manifesto-writers. The Quiet Man, in whose company we used to squirm with embarrassment, has become the Lion in Winter. It is IDS, I think, who articulates best out of all our former leaders why the country needs a Conservative Party (we must win not because we can, rather, we can win because we must).

William Hague. He learned the piano for a laugh, didn't he, and gives funny speeches and writes well-received books. He's still in the Shadow Cabinet so he's the lover that didn't go away, he just picked up one of your best friends and moved in with them instead. I honestly don't know what I think about Mr Hague. I think I'm glad he's there. But I get a cold shiver sometimes, because I can't shake the memory of that foreign land speech. You had to be there. One of the lows of civilised politics.

I still love John Major. He passed the "meet the relatives" test: he goes down well in Hackney. The only leader since JM who passes this test is, of course, David Cameron (note to those who enjoy disparaging DC - you should stop going on about Eton: nobody cares, any more than they cared that JM was a bus conductor. It's his ease with himself and people around him that we like). John Major is the proof that the wider the range of interests of a politician, the more we like them when they're our leader, and the more easily they get over us once we have dumped them (as Michael Cockerell showed last Monday on his excellent BBC4 Documentary, "How To Be An Ex-leader"). So I never got over John Major, and still smile fondly when he swims into my mind - not perhaps a feeling shared by the majority, but goodness isn't he thriving? And doesn't the sight of him remind you of the pre-Blair time when we were governed by basically decent, uncorrupt people?

I disdain the notion that it would have been "better" had we lost in 1992 - a notion promulgated by people whose feelings for another ex-leader far, far transcend those I may harbour for Mr Major. I speak, of course, of La Thatch, the right honourable Baroness of the Thatch, her worshipfulness and saviourness, the amazing, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime sensation, Ladeez and Gentlemen, I give you - and then stab in the back and remove from you - Margaret Thatcher. Well. We're completely over her, aren't we?

There isn't a hint in places like ConservativeHome that a strange coalition of middle-aged men, and children who weren't born while she governed, have formed a myth about what it was like to have her as leader? The weird thing is, the cabal who mythologise the Thatcher era are forcing a false dichotomy into modern Conservative thinking: subscribe now to a campaign to halve income tax/leave Europe, or you're some sort of crypto-red, because obviously Thatcher would cut taxes/leave Europe/insert absurd Telegraph editorial here. Guys, guys. I was there. I was a teenage Young Conservative chairman and had the joy of living under the best Conservative prime minister since Churchill, who transformed our country for the better. But there is no point in arguing - as too many Conservatives do still argue - about a sequence of counterfactual historical narratives (Would she have joined the ERM if Lawson hadn't shadowed the... etc).

She's gone. And our relationship ended an awfully long time ago. Even our best friends are getting fed up listening to the late-night tear-stained phonecalls. It's time to remember fondly and from a distance, and stop pretending that the 80s are a template for today. It's OK. It's not disloyal. It's called winning a Tory majority. And as too many lives are left unfulfilled by the clunking fist of failed leftwing government, there are too many people who can't afford for us to lose again.


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