Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The Plotter Thickens

Matthew D'Ancona writes on Conservative plotting. To be nice to Mr D'Ancona he does have a good headline "The Tories really have lost the plot" relating as it does to the lack of a leadership challenger. For a change how right the warmongers were. In his case he sees that Clarke has been worsted by being questioning on the war:

The public were certainly baffled by the Bush-Blair strategy, as Mr Clarke said to anyone who would listen. But once Saddam's regime began to topple, the voters swung behind the war before you could say "next stop, Pyongyang". Mr Clarke's legendary political antennae - his principal claim to the top job in the party - had failed him badly.

Like a certain other Spaniard, Mr D'Ancona didn't seem to be able to follow the argument as that would have involved - oh I don't know - listening to it. The best summation of this point of view was discursed by my improvement Mr Montgomery:

Let us imagine for a moment that the Official Opposition didn’t endorse this war, that it was at best luke-warm, and at worst, downright hostile. If the war goes badly, then we stand to benefit from our prescience; whatever way we choose to pitch it, we would, had we opposed the war, be able to attack the government. We could be the party that said that this was a foolish military adventure, entirely divorced from the national interest, ‘not worth the blood and treasure’ etc, etc. Or we could have been the party that wasn’t much enthused, and so sat on our hands. In this scenario, we stand out as the movement that refused to go along with ‘the rush to war’, so wise old us. I don’t think for one second that the war that’s liable to be fought is going to be such as to cause either Britain or America domestic problems, but if that’s a wrong shout, a party that has opposed the war will find it hard to avoid some sort of political benefit.

What then if things go ‘well’? As I argued above, the gain from backing a government that does well out of war is non-existent for an opposition, so the issue has to be, what kind of penalty will be incurred for opposing a war that’s won?

Here again, given the temper of Western electorates, I’m hard pushed to see what the punishment would be. So what if a party stand out against war, either meekly, or, less wisely, by predicting Armageddon? Voters are fickle and shallow, and oppositions are so rarely punished for being wrong. No one remembers the mistakes shadows make, but they hardly forget what government does. In other words, since so few people pay attention to an opposition, historically it’s been quite easy to avoid any serious political consequences for your rhetorical actions. By far the worst decision any government in Britain made in the nineties was to enter the old Exchange-rate Mechanism (ERM). This decision was reluctantly taken by a Tory government, and every moment of delay was denounced by a Labour opposition braying ever more keenly for entry. In the end, John Major’s government was destroyed by this mistake, and Tony Blair’s blindly pro-European New Labour romped home to a general election triumph. To state a general rule: you only pay for your actions when your actions matter.

In other words if there's no risk of losing but a chance of winning then take that strategy. Now first let us remember that foreign adventures tend to go wrong at the occupation rather than the invasion stage, recall Vietnam, Somalia, Northern Ireland....

But even considering that we were in the best of all possible worlds and that the occupation went without major incident and the neo-cons were leashed to the post and America didn't invade everywhere between Kandahar and Timbuctu. Would there be any negative consequences for an anti-war opposition party? Well unlike any arguments about how peaceful and everlasting American Imperium in the Middle East will be we actually have polling figures.

Let's look at the figures for the Conservatives and compare them to the Liberal Democrats. I'll take July as the base line as Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, started to speak out strongly against the war in mid August. According to Mori the war supporting Conservatives got 27% then and they got 27% in March (last available figures). Well they didn't suffer, but they hardly prospered.

The Liberal Democrats who "got it wrong" according to Mr D'Ancona got 18% then and 20% now. Now I'm not claiming that this was due to their opposition to the war, just that the opposition plainly has nor hurt them. Montgomery and Clarke were right, it doesn't harm. If this adventure unravels (and their is no guarantee that it will, at least in public gaze) then who would reap the benefits. IDS failed to see, or what is worse failed to take up, a risk free strategy.


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