10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 10


Nothing personal, William. Just the Tories' way with their leaders


lot of Tories are now questioning the wisdom of holding the euro ballot. Mr Hague had hoped that it would reaffirm his authority and help to resolve the European issue, but at least in the short term it has undermined his authority and highlighted the party's divisions. But this does not mean that he was wrong to hold the ballot or, indeed, that he had any alternative.

It was not Mr Hague who started this euro dispute. That happened in January, in a letter to the Independent, in which many of the party's leading Europhiles effectively offered Mr Hague a choice between surren- der or subversion. If he thought that he could fight the next election on a platform of opposition to a single currency, they warned him that he had better think again, or his position would be impossible.

From the point of view of Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and oth- ers, this was sound strategic judgment. These men have spent their entire political careers trying to build a united Europe by stealth, and the single currency is now their chosen instrument. Although they occasion- ally worry that Mr Blair is being overcau- tious, they broadly agree with his approach: of softening up public opinion without engaging in a serious debate; of trying to persuade the voters that a single currency is both inevitable and unthreatening. But, like Mr Blair, they recognise that there is only one obstacle in their way, only one force in British politics which could mount an effec- tive campaign to save sterling: the Tory party. Now that they have lost all hope of ever regaining their ascendancy over that party, the Tory federalists have a choice. They can either allow Mr Hague to do his best to thwart their lifetimes' ambition, or they can do their best to thwart Mr Hague. They will choose the latter course, which means that the Tory party, if not split, is cer- tainly splintered.

For at least a decade after 1846, most of the Peelites would have called themselves Conservatives. But they never again served in a Conservative government, and indeed tried to prevent any such government from being formed. Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine are now in a similar position.

At Blackpool last week, there was talk about candidates to become foreign secre- tary if .— or when — Mr Blair sacks Mr Cook. Jack Straw was regarded as the strongest runner, though there were also nominations for George Robertson, Jack Cunningham, Peter Mandelson — and Ken Clarke. But there were two objections to Mr Clarke. The first was that his Euro-enthusi- asm is so intense that he might bounce the government into showing its hand before Mr Blair was ready; the second was that he is far more useful to Labour by staying where he is. But by all objective criteria, Mr Clarke is now part of Mr Blair's coalition, as are Mr Heseltine and Lord Howe.

The comparison with 1846 will distress many Tories, who know that it took 28 years after the fall of Peel before the party next won an overall majority. But the case for Tory despair is vastly overstated, for two reasons. The first is that the Corn Laws and the single currency are a false analogy. Disraeli's Corn Law campaign was wholly meretricious; a mere vehicle for his ambi- tion. As soon as he had displaced Peel, Dis- raeli began to repudiate all his Corn Law commitments. But the euro is a real ques- tion, which brings us to the second reason why Tories need not yet feel suicidal.

Most current political commentary is dominated by a false assumption: that we are now in a period of bourgeois consolida- tion, with no great issues to divide public opinion and therefore nothing to obstruct Mr Blair in his relentless quest for popular- ity. But this is simply untrue. Leaving aside the economy — a pretty large aside — there are two enormous questions only just over the political horizon: the euro and English nationalism. Between them they could reshape British politics.

The first rounds in the euro contest have gone to the federalists, but that is of little consequence. There is still a lot of cam- paigning to go before the British people will have to make up their mind. The Europhiles may win in the end — though I think not — but does anyone believe that it will be an easy victory? No wonder Ken Clarke was unhappy about the commitment to hold a referendum. The euro campaign may not come in time to revive Tory for- tunes at the next election; Mr Blair is deter- mined to decouple the single currency from the electoral process and thus prevent it from jeopardising Project Re-election. But at some stage, the euro issue will help the Tory party to recover.

So could English nationalism. The cre- ation of a Scottish parliament has desta- bilised the constitution, so that we can be certain of only one thing — the present arrangements will not last. Either Scotland will become independent, or the UK will move towards federalism. Most Tories in Bournemouth are still sentimental Union- ists, who have not yet realised that the sta- tus quo ante devolution has gone for ever, but when that realisation dawns, and not just in Bournemouth, the call for an English parliament may prove irresistible. It will also be an opportunity for the Tories.

Not that most Tories are opportunity- minded this week. Before the conference began, there was a sullen grumbling mutter, and though the artificial atmosphere of conference week has had its usual cheering effect, there will be little boost to longer- term morale. But there is nothing new in this. The Tory party has always grumbled.

Denis Healey used to compare the Labour and Tory parties. Labour, he said — speaking before the Eighties — was like a permanently disorderly household. The neighbours were forever phoning the police to complain about the noise and the fight- ing, but nothing ever happened that necessi- tated more than a brief patching up at the local outpatients' department. The Tory household seemed very different, with everything prim and trim behind privet hedges and lace curtains. But if you watched carefully, you would see the body bags leav- ing by the back door.

With only four exceptions in the past 200 years, the Tory party has always maltreated its leaders. Those exceptions were Pitt, Liv- erpool, Derby and Salisbury, whose political contexts were rather different from William Hague's. The Tory party sets demanding criteria for its leaders, and especially in opposition, which it hates. At present, how- ever, there is no realistic alternative to Mr Hague, nor will there be until Mr Portillo both returns to the Commons and proves that the public has stopped associating him with the last government's unpopularity. Mr Hague does not even have to win the next election in order to survive; he only has to do well enough to convince the bulk of his party that they are back in winning range.

In the short term, at least, the current controversy will not help; intra-party rows never do. But Mr Hague had no choice. Unless he had taken on the federalists, he would never have been in a position to address the greatest issue facing the nation.