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Gary Younge
Tories on the move

In his Barbour jacket and tartan tie he strides around, canvassing for the local candidate in this Thursday's byelection for the Scottish parliament, with the confidence of man apparently oblivious to the oblivion which has been inflicted on his own party in recent elections north of the border. "We haven't seen a favourable reaction like this for a Tory candidate for some years," he says. "You can sense that the mood is changing."

The voters look set to oust Labour and return a Tory to the Scottish parliament. According to the polls their lead is narrow but consistent - although a huge number remain undecided. A victory would make John Scott, a local farmer, the first Conservative MSP to be elected on the first-past-the-post basis. The prospect has put Tories in jubilant mood, with supporters pouring in from all over Scotland.

The ramifications of a Tory victory here go beyond the Tweed to the nation at large. Its importance is reflected in the big guns that have been sent to the area from Westminster. The Conservative leader, William Hague, arrives today. The cabinet enforcer, Mo Mowlam, was here on Thursday. It is also illustrated by a high-level snub last week from the prime minister. Despite a visit to Scotland Tony Blair declined to come to the constituency, claiming pressure of work. Many here accuse him of running scared of association with almost certain defeat.

It is easy to grasp the significance of such a defeat for Conservatives. Most commentators have either written them out of the current political narrative as an irrelevance or written them in as a joke. When shadow spokesmen and women are wheeled in front of the cameras one presumes that (with the possible exception of Anne Widdecombe) they have been invited either out of sympathy or in a desperate search for balance - not because they might have something to contribute, however nefarious, to any particular debate. Hague is regarded as a man holding the fort and clearing up the mess until a grown-up steps in - not as the possible leader of the next government.

Victory in Ayr, Tories hope, followed by gains in council elections in May, might signal the green shoots of a general recovery. "I very much hope that this election is seen as the turning point in Tory party fortunes throughout the country," says Scott. "It will show that we have learnt our lesson from the last election and that the voters can trust us."

If he wins this, many far more extravagant claims will be made by the right which should be treated with extreme caution rather than dismissive ridicule. Defeat in Ayr will not send Millbank into a tailspin. This is not like Dudley West, which went from a 5,789 Conservative majority to a 20,694 Labour win in 1994, presaging the 1997 landslide. Labour won by only 25 votes in Ayr last year. If the Conservatives cannot overturn that slender margin almost three years into Labour's term then there is little hope for them.

But the result should serve as a timely reminder that, unlike Monty Python's infamous parrot, the Tory party is not dead, but merely sleeping.

The shock Conservative victory in last year's Euro elections shows just what a mistake it is to write them off. The sense of drift, introspection and lack of unity they display may evoke Labour during the early 80s. But electorally their share of the popular vote in 1997 is almost identical to Labour's in 1987.

And come the next election there will be many more slender margins out there for them to whittle away at - more than a third of Labour's majority comes from constituencies won by less than 5,000 votes; add to this almost half the Liberal Democrat seats which are held by the same margin and it becomes clear that in 18 months the Tories could be in a position to mount a credible opposition.

Yet they do not seem ready for the role. There is more to opposition than arithmetic. They will owe a victory in Ayr only to disillusionment with the government both in Westminster and Holyrood. If Labour crash to third position behind the SNP, as one poll suggested they might, it will be because three-quarters of those those who currently don't know how to vote on Thursday voted Labour last time.

Turning disaffected Labour supporters into active Tories will not be easy - especially so long as the economy is strong. But it might not be impossible. Many of those who backed Labour at the last election did so for the first time and, given the right incentive, could be attracted back without too much concern about loyalty. This is Blair's worst nightmare - the Tories galvanising their core support while Labour voters sit on their hands.

Paradoxically, given that it was the issue which tore them apart before the last election, the most popular policy the Conservatives have is on Europe. Their stance of leaving Britain inside the EU but outside the euro chimes with the views of most voters. Since no other party agrees, it has the added benefit of being distinctive.

And a glimmer of what else is possible emerges from the few who genuinely do seem to have begun ideologically to regroup after 1997. Last week the Tory party in Brighton selected its first openly gay parliamentary candidate. When the party's London mayoral candidate, Steve Norris, says he would have sacked the Met commissioner Paul Condon after the Macpherson report, and that he expects police to turn a blind eye to gay people having sex in public places, he turns heads among people who would never have dreamed of voting Tory before.

But that will not be enough. Even if Labour does not have a monopoly on socially progressive assertions, it is a terrain with which they are far more familiar than the Tories. For Conservatives to be taken seriously they are going to have to update their economic policies too.

Canvassers in the Ayr byelection repeat that the key issues are jobs, health and education - not areas where Tories are well trusted. At a Conservative party meeting in the village hall in the small Ayrshire village of Loans on Friday night, the handful of members present criticised rail privatisation and the paltry increase in pensions. They questioned why Gordon Brown's 1p cut in income tax was not going to the NHS.

This is William Hague's greatest challenge. He must face down not only the race-haters and gay-baiters within his own party, but the privatisers and tax slashers too - to find a creative, big idea and a creative way to fund it too. Like George W Bush and Tony Blair, if he is ever going to make himself popular with the voters he must first learn how to make himself unpopular with his own party. It might wipe the smile off Malcolm Rifkind's face; but it might put his frown back in Westminster too.

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