Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Redwood rising?

Maverick "right-wing" (i.e., free-market, low-tax) Conservative MP John Redwood is in the news again. Good news. Very good.

Much of Britain's Conservative Party has always been strictly small-c conservative: cautious, managerial, muddling through, anti-principle on principle. Then there have been those in it who are devoted to a set of convictions plausibly designated Conservative, such as Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. T. led the Tories to three landslides in a row, but after that third time, a dip in the polls was deemed unacceptable by the "wet" establishment, and they threw her out.

One of the few Thatcherites left in a ministerial position after the "wet" coup of 1990 was John Redwood. When John Major, Thatcher's successor as party leaders and Prime Minister, proved to be too wet, Redwood challenged him for the leadership -- much as Mrs. Thatcher had done to the gormless Ted Heath in 1975, except that back then the party was out of office, while Redwood's challenge was to a sitting Prime Minister. This was in 1995. Redwood's ambition to be the new Thatcher were pretty evident: he even began introducing himself to the U.S. conservative community, lecturing at the Heritage Foundation.

Well, when you challenge your party's incumbent Prime Minister from within the party, you just better had win -- and Mr. Redwood didn't. By the usual rules, his political career should have been over. Plus, given his reputation as both a severe "right-winger" and a cold-fish policy wonk, he was tagged with the nickname "Spode," after P.G. Wodehouse's memorably insufferable fascist party leader.

After the Blair-led Labour victory of 1997, Mr. Major retired to a knighthood and a second career as a cricket author, and the Conservatives looked again for new leadership. Redwood did not even make the longest of long lists -- but he was biding his time, quietly developing policies for whomever his party told him his leader now was.

And those leaders? Coming and going like relief pitchers in a losing baseball game. First, the conservative but hair-challenged William Hague took as big a trouncing by Blair in 2001 as Major had done in 1997. (Mr. Hague is now Shadow Foreign Secretary, meaning, he minds foreign policy for the Conservatives in opposition. His biography of Pitt the Younger was well-received.) (Mr. Major, it will be noted, had excellent hair -- and pulled off a narrow and unexpected general election victory in 1992.)

Then Iain Duncan Smith was (a) elected leader and (b) chucked out without even a general election intervening. Michael Howard, "conservative" only if immigration restriction is your big issue, led the party into the next general election with the slogan, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" "No," said voters, giving Blair a third term by another huge margin. (Trivia: Mr. Howard was the first Jewish Tory leader since Disraeli, and the first ever if you count Disraeli out for having been baptized as an Anglican. Out of Jewishness, I mean: in those days, it was still possible to be both an Anglican and a Conservative.)

So the Conservatives ousted Howard and his entire generation. Realizing their reputation as the "nasty" party gave them a p.r. problem, they chose a leader whose only experience before being elected to Parliament was as a p.r. exec: the present party leader, David Cameron. Cameron has since been busy re-branding the Conservatives to the left. Some good polls resulted for a while, leading many big-C Conservatives to tolerate Mr. Cameron. But it now seems those polls reflected Blair-fatigue more than Camero-mania: since Gordon Brown has been PM, the Tories have again slipped in the polls again. Problems such as terrorist threats, foot-and-mouth disease, and the implosion in the City should be problems for Mr. Brown: instead, they have only enhanced his standing as a leader, while Cameron is now seen as so obsessed with "image" that re-branding now is his image.

And what of John Redwood through all this? In or out of government, in or out of the shadow cabinet, he just keeps winning his seat, doing his free-market low-tax policy-wonking, and supporting the party leader du jour. Not for him the gesture-politics of defecting to UKIP or stirring up revolt among big-C Conservative backbenchers.

So here he is today, tasked by Mr. Cameron with developing economic proposals for the next Conservative government. He's not even in the shadow cabinet, but with the perception spreading that the party needs principles and not just branding, Redwood is suddenly just what the doctor ordered. He is now driving the debate. Opponents both within his party and in the Government find they have to respond to him.

Will he challenge Cameron for the leadership? What, and repeat his disaster of '95? Don't be silly. Torygraph scribblers say it would suicidal for the party to change leaders again before the next general election, and that seems correct to me. So Redwood has every reason to treat as radioactive any like-minded back-benchers who might be minded to egg him on.

(Number 1 rejected party slogan: "Tories: Every front-bencher a former Leader!" Rejected b/c there are also former leaders on the back benches and in the House of Lords. Number 2: "Tories: Leaders by the sixpack." Faux populism, you know.)

No, there's no escape from Cameronism until Cameron has taken a general election shellacking. But Redwood is clearly back in the leadership limelight. Here's what's going to happen: there will be a general election, either this fall or in 2009, and Gordon Brown will get a full term in his own right. Cameron's letter resigning as party leader, and the party's acceptance thereof, will cross in the mail. Many candidates will emerge, and John Redwood will be among them: as conservative as ever, but no longer an insurgent, and no longer "Spode" (he's often he's photographed tieless these days, including the picture on his own website -- he's loosening up! He's just like folks!), but instead, both a team-player and an ideas-man.

After that I can't predict anything, but my, how jolly it would be for this old last-ditch Thatcherite -- I mean me -- to see John Redwood as Leader of the Opposition, leading the party into the the general election after next.....