It is a part-comic, part-monstrous image out of Dickens as illustrated by Phiz; an assembly of Smallweeds, Weggs, Heeps, Dedlocks, Pecksniffs and - in the case of Anne Widdecombe - Havishams. In the background a series of amorphous squiggles suggests a preening shadow Cultural Secretary here, a vacuous shadow Treasury Secretary there. And to think this is the body that will have been deliberating about how Mr Hague should respond, later today, to the Queen's Speech.
You see? You may have money worries, health problems or "issues" in your relationship, but fate has at least not singled you out in the same way that it has William Hague and played that savage trick of granting the greatest desire in the worst possible way. Some readers may recall a short story called The Monkey's Paw, which depicts Mr Hague's situation exactly: a woman loses her son, who has fallen into a combine harvester and been radically rearranged. So, when she is given a magic Oriental charm (the eponymous simian body part), she wishes to have her beloved boy return to her from the dead. It is only when she hears the dragging step up her front path at midnight, that - horror-struck - she realises what may be coming her way.
Thus Mr Hague - an intelligent, pleasant, slightly unworldly young Yorkshireman - rubbed the paw and got the post-May '97 Tories lurching, broken, limbs missing, into his parlour. Now he has to reconstruct his political life. And the omens are not good.
Still, it is the hand that Mr Hague elected to pick up from the table and now he must play it as best he can. And for all last week's hilarity concerning his employment of fashion and media advisers, it will be his political strategy that matters, not his suits. So, this afternoon, when he rises to comment on the Queen's Speech (how sad it is for us journalists that Mr Blair has not come out!), we will begin to get an idea of whether William is beginning to find a new Tory story - to define a Hague project.
Today's speech will not be easy to oppose. Most of its proposals are either popular or relatively uncontroversial. Hereditary peerages to be abolished (I'll enjoy hearing Her Majesty read that one out), the NHS internal market to be reformed, union recognition to be democratically extended, criminal justice to be speeded up, executive mayors to be allowed in such localities as want them, Sunday voting to be introduced, old ladies to kissed by young men and apple pie to be made with only the best apples.
Now, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate how this speech might be opposed effectively and in such a way as to enhance the Tories. And I can only begin by arguing how the job should not be done. As far as I can see, Tory strategy in the last few months has been aimed at telling the electorate that New Labour is almost as bad as the Conservatives were when they were in power. Over "closed lists", the Tories have attempted to invoke the spectre of "Tony's cronies", deploying their hereditary peers to defeat the Commons. In the case of Geoffrey Robinson's seemingly minute historic infractions of company law, the Conservatives have again mounted the crony attack, calling for a ministerial resignation.
My substantial objection to this line of attack is that it is entirely counter-productive. Insofar as it works at all, it does so by increasing general cynicism about politicians. Memories of Neil Hamilton and the Scott Report are very unlikely to fade so rapidly that the Conservatives become the beneficiaries of public disgust. And the backwoods, backward votes in the Lords serve mostly to remind everyone of how profoundly unmodern the Tories are.
Nor will opposing for opposition's sake go down too well. When it was reported at the weekend that the NHS intended to set up machinery to pursue insurance companies for some of the cost of patching up accident victims (surely a measure originating in Tory times?), the Conservative chairman, Michael Ancram, commented that the resulting increased premiums would be "regarded as another attack on rural interests at a time when the rural economy is in trouble". I'm sorry, Michael, have I missed something here? Most motorists live in towns and cities (where they already pay higher premiums in case of theft or damage), so how can this possibly be seen as part of the fictional urban war against the countryside? Not many votes there, then.
William, William, William. Drop all this sub-Telegraph fogey stuff and consult your own youthful instincts. Read Steve Richards' excellent article on this page yesterday and consider what won't have been in the Queen's Speech that ought to have been. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent the Conservatives from becoming - say - the party of freedom of information. It is, after all, your claim to be starting afresh, William, so lay into Jack Straw and enjoy the editorials here and in The Guardian, applauding your radicalism.
While you're about it, why not demand that the Government legislate for the creation of a fully elected second chamber to replace the Lords, place a draft bill before the House to that effect and then campaign for it? What would be so unTory about that? You could insist on some form of PR in voting for local councils, to help do away with Labour rotten boroughs. And watch those Liberal Democrats waver!
Require that the referendum on the single currency (which will come into being within weeks) should be held in this session and not put off for centuries to suit the Government. Join with Lord Archer in deprecating the absence of a Transport Bill in this session and in advocating radical plans to ease congestion in our cities. Amaze the Greens!
Attack the Government for the recruitment crisis in schools and tell it that, while you agree with its emphasis on standards, these cannot be delivered without extra payment to good teachers. Forget all the minority stuff about selection and assisted places, most parents are concerned about who stands up in that class-room - so provide a costed plan showing how everything can be paid for by twiddling with VAT or mortgage tax relief. After all, you won't have to deal with the aftermath.
Remember, above all, the words of Danton: "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace." His second (and final) great saying, it must be admitted was "show my head to the crowd. It is well worth seeing". Which at least, William, is something.Reuse content