31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 8


Mr Hague must get a grip, and he has one winter in which to do it


By the end of last week, a fierce little turf war had broken out between the Home Office and the Foreign Office over the Pinochet affair. As always when this Gov- ernment gets into difficulties, and especial- ly if either Mr Cook or Mr Brown are involved, ministers' first response is not to address the problems, but to guard their own backs and do down their rivals. No. 10, meanwhile, had opened a second front against Mr Cook. Within hours of com- plaining about plummy-voiced Old Etoni- ans purporting to speak for Britain, Alas- tair Campbell decided that he should speak for Argentina. He rehashed the Sun article he had written on the Emperor of Japan's behalf and attributed it to President Menem. That was foolish. The Japanese were aware that the war guilt question could have overshadowed the Emperor's visit, so they were prepared to allow Mr Campbell some latitude. There were com- ments at the time; everyone was aware that Mr Campbell was putting words into the Emperor's mouth. But any raising of the Imperial eyebrows occurred only in private.

But it was absurd of Mr Campbell to think that he could pull off the same trick twice, and especially with a democratically elected politician who has to manage a volatile populace whose pride is easily injured. The trouble with Mr Campbell is that he has lit- tle experience of honest journalism. Devot- ed to the late Robert Maxwell, he spent most of his career on the sort of newspa- pers where truth is an optional extra and never allowed to impede a good story. If he had consulted one of the plummy-voiced FO officials whom he despises, he would have been told not to be so daft, but Mr Campbell is too arrogant to consult anybody. Needless to say, there was no question of consulting the Foreign Secretary. No-one expects him to have anything useful to say on foreign policy. He recently asked the Foreign Minister of Romania if his country had a common border with Greece. No wonder the Foreign Office is now more demoralised than ever before in its history. But Robin Cook has an answer to that problem: he called in a 24-year-old to re- brand the Foreign Office. No-one would dream of putting such a nonsensical notion in a TV comedy script; it would lack all verisimilitude. That said, perhaps the young man could find a role: giving Robin Cook geography lessons. The Foreign Office does not require rebranding. It just needs a new foreign secretary.

Confronted with all this, a competent Opposition would have only one problem: the danger of being dazzled by the multi- plicity of targets. Any competent opposi- tion, and that is the difficulty. On the evi- dence of the past few days, we do not have a competent Opposition.

There was no need for Mr Hague and his team to align themselves with Mr Pinochet. There was a perfectly easy line to take, and it would have gone as follows: in Ulster, after nearly thirty years of terrorism in which over three thousand people died the same figure that is alleged against Mr Pinochet, and a much smaller proportion of his victims were innocent — we are allow- ing the terrorists' leaders to join a govern- ment, and releasing their followers. In Ulster, in South Africa, in Spain after Fran- co and in Chile, the majority of voters have decided to leave the past to historians and to concentrate on the future. To para- phrase Marx, he who wallows in history is condemned to relive it. So why is the gov- ernment refusing to allow the people of Chile to behave in the same way as they urge the people of Ulster to do? Why did the Home Secretary not halt the extradition proceedings, announcing that a Govern- ment which was happy to talk to Gerry Adams could not detain Mr Pinochet?

Within minutes of the Pinochet story breaking, Michael Howard began an attack on those lines. Then he left for Saudi Ara- bia and the Tories dissolved into inanity. By the Monday, the line was that the party would not be taking a line. It was pointed out that if they tried to sit on that particular fence, it would sprout spikes and razor wire, but nothing happened.

Two days later, Margaret Thatcher sharpened the spikes with a ferocious letter to the Times. This made life difficult for the Opposition, who did not want to trail in her wake. But it was wholly predictable that she would thunder on the General's behalf. (`She was in America, so we thought it was okay,' a Hague aide bewailed. Did he think that there are no phones or faxes in the USA?) The Thatcher factor made it vital that the Tory frontbench should have ham- mered out its position.

It had not, so on that Wednesday morn- ing's Today programme, Peter Lilley bore the brunt of the wire and the spikes, ending up spluttering and humiliated. Afterwards, Mr Hague was angry with Mr Lilley, but the problem is more basic: a lack of what Montgomery called 'grip'. Mr Hague's staff officers are not to blame. Seb Coe is a shrewd fellow, while George Osborne and Gregor Mackay are very promising young politicians. There is also a new, first-rate head secretary, Tina Stowell, who used to do the same job in the No. 10 press office; she must be a masochist for pressure. Mr Hague has a larger secretariat than Mrs Thatcher had after 1975, but in action, it seems less than the sum of its parts. A lack of grip can only be remedied by strong leadership. Mr Hague must also ensure that he has a political warfare execu- tive. But not another sprawling meeting, with half of Central Office insisting on being there to show how important they are; there are too many of them already. The require- ment is for a tightly-knit group of politically- motivated men who should meet briefly but should be in constant mental session, plan- ning pre-emptive strikes on problems and instant exploitation of opportunities. Mr Hague has had successes over the past 18 months. The party reforms were neces- sary, while his Parliamentary performances have ranged from good to outstanding, as have the public speeches. A reformed party and a powerful performance at PM's ques- tions should have had an impact on the polls, but it still seems as if the terms of political trade have changed, in Mr Blair's favour. As a result, Tory confidence is fraying. That is what Mr Hague must correct. He has the ability to succeed, but this winter is his Valley Forge. Next summer we shall know whether he is George Washington or Austen Chamberlain.