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Gary Younge
Flicker from the shadows

Every day there seems to be a new proposal, announcement or interview suggesting not so much the resurrection of the Conservative party, more its total reinvention. Suddenly the Tories are on a roll. Their second humiliation at the polls in June suggested their exile from government would be extended. Their leadership election, which exposed deep-seated prejudices in the membership and vicious personal rivalries between the would-be leaders, presaged political extinction. Now they are back as a force rather than a farce.

But those who hail a Conservative revival claim too much. The Conservatives have not rolled very far. The latest opinion poll has them at only 29%, 15 points behind Labour and only nine points ahead of the Liberal Democrats. Half of the public, and a third of Conservative party supporters, have no opinion about the new leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Of those who do have an opinion, only 10% regard him as a capable leader.

The Conservatives have not rolled very fast either, although this is not entirely their fault. Duncan Smith was due to announce his victory on September 12. The bipartisan atmosphere after the terrorist attacks was hardly conducive to sound opposition, although it may have given Duncan Smith much needed time to heal the scars of the leadership battle. There is so far no detail and zero ideological coherence to Conservative proposals. Duncan Smith's assertion that "the objective is to get government off people's backs" is neither a big nor a new idea and sits uneasily with yesterday's proposal for US-style hearings for key government appointments. Cutting taxes and improving public services may seem a "false choice" to Duncan Smith, but an obvious one to the electorate. Conservative criticism of the handling of Zimbabwean asylum seekers was shrewd but may haunt the party next time it talks about Britain as a "soft touch". Since the Tories do not plan to establish policy for two years, such contradictions will be commonplace.

Last week a leaked memo from the shadow chief secretary, John Bercow, said the party faces a "struggle to survive as a major political force because it is seen as racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth". Duncan Smith insisted this was not a portrait of the party that he recognised: "The party I lead is a decent party. It is a tolerant party. It is just like the British people." Either he has not been to a party meeting for a long time or he should get out more. The party is whiter, posher and less tolerant than its leaders say they would like it to be, but not half as white and posh as many of its critics like to imagine. Yet its principal problem is demographic.

The average age of a party member is in the mid-sixties and rising. This is not an issue of years, but of outlook. The Conservatives do not look like the British people do today, and they think the way that British people did 30 years ago. In this sense both the party and Duncan Smith are going back to basics. He has to prove that he can lead and reform the party; the party has to prove not that it is fit for power but that it is capable of opposition. For now, its prospects have stopped deteriorating and its new leader has not proved a disaster. That this is a better outcome than most Tories had hoped shows how low were their expectations after the election.

But the party's new-found confidence should warn those who have predicted its demise. The Tories may be down but they are not out. Time is on their side. Duncan Smith was right, last week, when he appealed to the amnesia of the electorate: "As memories fade, so people's recollection of what was done fades." By the next election, it will be a decade since the party was rocked by sleaze and 15 years since the high mortgages and economic chaos marking the end of British membership of the ERM.

And the longer that Labour is in power, the less convincing is the argument that things are bad because the Tory government left them that way. A Conservative government will soon be a distant memory, and anyway, why vote Labour if it is incapable of wrestling free of the Tory legacy? Blair spent his first term reassuring people that things wouldn't change too much, and that any small change would be gradual. He will now have to spend his second term promising major and rapidly-visible improvements. The Conservatives have been more than happy to exploit his anxiety.

Unlike the Labour party in the 1980s, the Tories are unencumbered by internal democracy, and the Tory leadership is free to devise fresh proposals. In search of these they have boldly gone where no Tories have gone before, to Europe, and not just America. Their timing couldn't be better. The social democratic hegemony that stamped its imprimatur on Europe in the late 1990s seems to be over. Last year the right took or retained office in Italy, Norway and Denmark. This year voters in France, Portugal and even Germany could follow. And those elements of the right making headway have more in common with Duncan Smith than with his failed rival for the leadership, Kenneth Clarke. In Norway, Italy and Austria, the centre-right rules with either the support of, or in coalition with, the far right. There is plenty of material from which Duncan Smith might cut his cloth. He might consider Edmund Stoiber of the far right Christian Social Union, who is now the right's candidate in this year's German elections for the chancellorship. The CSU's more moderate sister party has been racked by scandal and riven with dissent. Stoiber is now leading in the polls.

Here is a cautionary tale for Blair. In most of these cases, the failure of social democrats to deliver to their core sup porters led not only to their loss of power but to a sharp political reaction that could erase any good they did. Labour support is broad but not particularly deep. As long as the economy holds up and the Tories remain hopeless, voters are prepared to back Labour. But traditional party allegiances are now fragile and the electorate very volatile. Voters do not love New Labour, they have merely tolerated it, and the same is true of parts of the press. If the standard of public services, particularly health, education and transport, does not improve soon, voters and press could lose patience.

A Tory revival is not in sight yet. But it could happen. And if it does, it will be as swift and dramatic as that change of tone on the shadow front benches in the Commons.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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