Hague should take Disraeli as a role model to deal with the New Whigs

Mr Hague hopes to establish the Tories as the party of personal and direct democracy
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The Independent Culture
THE GOOD news for William Hague is that he passes his first anniversary as Tory leader with a growing number of well-wishers. The bad news is that they are not, nor likely to become, Conservatives.

Hooked on the practice of self- mutilation, senior Tories were unlikely to let the occasion for modest celebration pass without firing a salvo into their own feet, and up popped Michael Heseltine to spoil the party by complaining about Mr Hague's Euroscepticism. This has at least made a change from right-wingers briefing covertly against their leader for his supposed laxity on moral and constitutional issues.

Meanwhile, there are sound reasons for non-Conservatives to wish the Opposition a speedy recovery - if not such a complete one that it returns to power in the foreseeable future. One can be supportive of Mr Blair and his desire to create a fairer, more meritocratic Britain, yet conclude that the lack of friction from a strong opposing party is not doing New Labour any favours. Good government demands sound opposition in order to scrutinize its behaviour and prevent it succumbing to the flab of arrogance.

In Scotland, this role is being filled by the SNP. Hence the sudden vigorous sleaze-busting operation that should have begun in the days of John Smith. In England and Wales, with the Lib Dems begging for the biscuit of electoral reform, there is little effective scrutiny of the Government.

The Conservatives have had an underwhelming first year in opposition, but Mr Hague has treated it as a learning curve. Given that he could not expect to be the cynosure of all eyes in the early days of a government with an overwhelming mandate, he was wise to use this time to improve his party's muscle tone before trying any more demanding policy gymnastics.

Now the Tory leader is beginning to evolve policies that could point out a strain of New Labour vulnerabilities. The early plan of building up a set of three identifiable Tory themes - defence of the existing House of Lords, defence of the pound and defence of the United Kingdom in the face of devolution - has been dismissed as projecting too antiquated an image. It would also play to Mr Blair's strength as a modernizer by making the Tory Party seem afraid of change.

Instead, Mr Hague will set out to out-reform Labour's reforms by calling this autumn for an elected second chamber to replace the hereditary peers in the Lords. This is not the solution I would favour. It is far too likely to duplicate the functions of the Commons and fall into the clutches of the party machines. But tactically, it is a deft move by the Tories because it would emphasize the dangers that a nominated Upper House will become Blairized quango.

One of the weaknesses of Mr Blair's current spate of elevations to the Lords was that, with the exception of the usual dutiful appointments of trade unionists, party workers and a couple of council leaders, it was very male and very rich (consider Waheed Alli, Melvyn Bragg and the businessman Chris Haskins). To the spin doctors' horror, the Chancellor's friend Gavyn Davies received a huge windfall from the Goldman Sachs flotation the same week as the plutocratic peerages were announced, thus creating the impression that the real motto of New Labour might be Guizot's cynically bourgeois philosophy Monsieurs, enrichissez-vous.

Not that it is inherently undesirable for Labour's favourites to be well heeled. Certainly, it is preferable to the days when anyone who had either become wealthy or had ambitions to do so felt bound to ditch the high-tax, high- envy party of the 1980s. But these alliances, while generously tolerated in economic good times, can irritate if the economic situation worsens, as it well might.

New Labour looks more and more like a modern Whig party, allied to the interests of the City (the Bank of England was a Whig creation), more at ease with the rich and famous than the commonality.

I strongly suspect that the minimum wage row is a substitute for this broader conflict at the heart of New Labour about its identity.

Whigs have their good side - confidence, authority and a lack of the infuriating chippiness that was such a feature of the post-war Left. Who could be a more genial Whiggish figure than the life-enhancing Derry Irvine, connoisseur of fine furnishings and good wines? Mr Blair, while he is too accomplished a politician to let it show through his populist mask is a natural Whig. He has far more in common with the possessors of wealth than the dispossessed

The New Whigs share the tendency of their historical predecessors in extending their influence throughout the Establishment of the day. In so doing, the party becomes indistinguishable from the Establishment and thus vulnerable to opposition claims that it has become too distant from ordinary people. The appointment of Simon Lewis, a PR man with strong Labour links, to be the Queen's spin-doctor is the latest sign that a Royal Family, its confidence knocked by the aftermath of Diana's death, has become something of a client-state to the New Labour Establishment.

A second and related Hagueite theme is the promise to deliver more democratic procedures than the centralizing tendencies of New Labour. By allowing his party a primary on the Mayor for London, free of the kind of machinations New Labour may well embrace to fend off a resurrection of Ken Livingstone, Mr Hague hopes to establish the Conservatives as the party of greater personal and direct democracy than that afforded by Mr Blair.

The greatest weakness of Mr Hague's position remains, however, that people simply do not know who he is. Those bravura performances in the House against Mr Blair are worth very little outside the Westminster beltway, because Parliament is becoming less important in the political process. The traditional Tory position is to lament this. But times change and so does the political arena. Mr Hague's next task is to project himself beyond the chamber without looking a clown. This, as his baseball cap experiment and Blackpool roller-coaster ride showed, is not as easy as it sounds.

In his restoration plans, he has two great home-grown models in Peel and Disraeli. The former's administrative skills and common sense should inspire him in modernizing his party's structure. But he must also avoid appearing to be merely calculating in his reforms: Peel was described as having "a smile like the glitter of a brass coffin". The leader of a vanquished party must retain the streak of visionary Romanticism and opportunism married so potently by Disraeli.

Having achieved this elusive blend of characteristics, he must go on to unite two very different traditions in his party - the progressive and flexible with the traditionalist and rigid - and harness their respective energies for the good of his cause. It is a stiff challenge, but not an impossible one for a gifted and determined politician. If Mr Hague needs more inspiration in such an undertaking than the 19th century can deliver, he can always look at the great reformer opposite him at the Dispatch Box.

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