Richard North, 04/10/2004  

With domestic politics suddenly coming back to life with a vengeance, the only common thread in the profusion of comment in the media is that there is no common thread. The political commentators seem to be all over the place.

At one extreme is Anthony Seldon in The Observer who argues that "Whatever the Tories do, they're doomed", which contrasts with the measured tone of yersterday's Sunday Telegraph leader which stops short of suggesting a victory for the Conservatives, but advises Howard not to panic and to be himself.

But if there is one thing which comes over clear is the message given by the Times Populus poll today which puts Labour at 35 percent, the Tories at 28 and the Lib–Dems at 25. On top of the humiliating fourth place in the Hartlepool by-election, that clearly spells "crisis" for the Conservative Party.

One of our own readers comments that the Conservatives would need a miracle to win the general, but Howard, himself, rather predictably, claims that a miracle is not necessary. On current performance, one might suggest that not even a miracle will bring the Conservatives to power.

Meanwhile, on top of the ongoing soap opera of the Blair succession, there is the sideshow of Kilroy-Silk bidding for leadership of UKIP, but this will remain a sideshow.

Kilroy has no significant power base in the party and has badly misjudged his tactics, believing that he could appeal over the heads of the current leadership, and be voted in by acclamation by a grateful membership. His grasp of the minutia of the procedural measures required to bring him to that point are minuscule, and he has already been outmanoeuvred.

Nevertheless, if we take it that UKIP is primarily the repository for the anti-Conservative vote, it does not really matter what UKIP does. It simply has to exist, and put up candidates, in order to scoop up the votes. In this – having been virtually ignored – it will now be aided by the likes of the BBC, which see in the party a useful stick with which to beat the Tories.

What matters more is what the Conservatives themselves do, and here it seems that both the media and the party are set on underplaying the "Europe" factor, determined to keep other issues to the fore. But, on the basis of just the Hartlepool vote, there are perhaps two million votes (if not more) that will be swayed by "Europe" and these are votes the Tories can ill afford to lose.

One looked with special interest, therefore, to the interview last night on the BBC Radio 4 "Westminster Hour" between Andrew Rawnsley and John Redwood, for clues as to where the Tories might be going on "Europe". Challenged with the negotiation question – as to what would happen if the "colleagues" said "no", Redwood dismissed the idea.

His view was, quite simply that they would not say no. Some of them want to go further with integration and, in the wake of the collapse of the constitution, a Conservative government would make a bargain, allowing them to go ahead in return for us getting what we want.

The argument is unconvincing, not least because – as with the social chapter – the other member states can pursue their own line while, in order for the UK to secure the repatriation of powers within the terms of the treaties, it must have the unanimous assent of all member states.

What this demonstrates, therefore, it that the Tories still have not developed a coherent policy on the European Union and, without that – expressed clearly and unambiguously, they are not going to claw back the UKIP vote.

Thus, as the Conservatives start what is probably their last conference before the general election, doom and gloom seems to be the prevailing mood, and there seems absolutely nothing substantive that would merit any change. The conference rituals will be observed, but the slide will continue.

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