How much more turmoil can the Tories take?

`If Tory MPs don't dump Mr Hague there won't be a Conservative Party left for anyone afterwards'

THE CONSERVATIVE Party's reaction to the decision by Shaun Woodward to resign and cross the floor to Labour was typically nasty, venal, and graceless. Michael Ancram, the party chairman said: "I have never been able to take Mr Woodward at face value."

Why, then, did he not make his views known when Mr Woodward was appointed to various senior positions in the party, including on his promotion to the Conservative front bench six months ago? The Tory Reform Group seems at least to have recognised the problem, describing the defection as a "significant blow". But the official line shows that the Tories are clearly determined to learn no lessons from this episode, and will now start sabre- rattling against others who are finding strains in their loyalty to this bunch of inward looking, superannuated student-union politicians who pass for the Tory front bench.

No one seems to understand just how hurtful they had been by the unkind way they dismissed Mr Woodward, by pager, a fortnight ago, after he dared to oppose the Shadow Cabinet's mean-minded line seeking to retain the hated Clause 28. I bumped into Mr Woodward as I was going into a television studio to support him. I could tell that he was deeply upset, even though he was desperately anxious to find an accommodation with his colleagues. They were equally determined to spurn his attempts at compromise. Ironically that compromise was subsequently adopted after Mr Woodward's resignation. It is clear that the "back-to-basics" wing wanted rid of him.

I regret Mr Woodward's decision to leave the party. He was one of the most decent, civilised and intelligent members of the Opposition front bench. His speech, earlier in the year, in favour of reducing the age of consent has got him nominated for the Channel 4 - House Magazine parliamentary awards next year. But seeing the reaction of his homophobic colleagues to his comments left him in no doubt of their intolerance. And I do not believe that his decision to resign from the party has been taken for careerist reasons. His five minutes of fame will be followed by a dreadful time facing the smears and opprobrium of the Conservative Party.

Even if he is parachuted into a safe seat by Labour for the next election (or as near as they can manage in these days of one-member, one-vote ballots), he will find great difficulty in adjusting to the ethos, traditions and style of the Labour Party. Maybe he will become a junior minister for paper clips, one day, but he will have a hard grind breaking through into the big time. He will be forever treated with deep suspicion.

But the fact that he could no longer cope inside the Conservative Party indicates just how unbearable life had become for him in a party that has lost its way, lost its soul and lost its desire to retain men and women of his calibre.

In a previous age anyone who had temporarily found themselves on the wrong side of party policy would have been in constant touch with the party whips, and treated to dinner or lunch at the Carlton Club with the party hierarchy in an effort to keep them happy. An unofficial "minder" would have been appointed to dish out tender loving care and make sure that the victim was not tempted to do anything silly, ranging from defection to suicide.

References have been made to the "Thatcherites" taking over the party. But those currently in charge have not followed the Thatcher management strategy at all. Margaret Thatcher went out of her way to make sure that, when a similar threat of defection arose with the formation of the SDP in 1981, the lines of communication were fully in place to ensure that everyone stayed on board. Hers was actually a government and a party in which slightly more than lip service was paid to those on the "one nation" wing of Conservatism.

Peter Walker, Jim Prior and Willie Whitelaw were employed to the full to make sure that MPs such as Stephen Dorrell were kept, if not happy, certainly on board. The practice of making sure that the rival in the leadership race was always included in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet ensured that anyone out of favour with the leader nevertheless had someone else close to the leader to whom they could pour out their troubles.

Margaret Thatcher kept Willie Whitelaw. John Major kept Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine. But William Hague failed to retain Ken Clarke. At the highest levels, there is pretty much no one available who does not agree with Mr Hague's exclusivist approach.

Mr Hague, however, should regard this debacle as a poor reflection on his own leadership failures. This is a seminal moment for the Conservative Party. If Mr Hague continues to stamp his little childish foot and carries on throwing his weight around he will find himself with even more defections on his hands. Life is already pretty gruesome for the likes of Ian Taylor, Tony Baldry and David Curry, and the leadership does not seem to care about talk of their possible deselection.

In the early 1980s, Tory MPs rightly used to attack the Bennite Labour Party every time a Labour MP defected to the SDP. We used to sympathise with just how hellish it was for any Labour MP who dared to express their own views. Today's Tory Party is now similarly a sect, and the stresses and strains over the policy on Europe, as over homosexuality, will cause tremendous difficulties for a number of MPs.

Party selection committees are now falling prey to the sect mentality. The Cities of London and Westminster selection committee broke the spirit of party rules by excluding, for the membership, a real choice of a wide spectrum of candidates. This resulted in a mere 200 party members, out of 2,500 paid-up subscribers, attending the final selection. Entryism and nastiness combined with procedural wrangling - the ways of the Militant Tendency have arrived in today's Conservative party.

Every weekend for a month now Michael Ancram has had to respond to some ghastly horror: Lord Archer's resignation; the sacking of Mr Woodward; the omission of Steve Norris from the London mayoral list; and finally Mr Woodward's own resignation from the party. All avoidable. And all have proved beyond doubt that Mr Hague is unworthy of the leadership of the Conservative Party.

But it is, frankly, probably too late to change the leader. Tory MPs could pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Hague, but they are trapped like frightened rabbits in the headlights. It is, again, a little like the early 1980s, when Labour MPs dithered over replacing Michael Foot with the more voter-friendly Denis Healey until it was too late to do anything. In any event, would Ann Widdecombe or Michael Portillo thank MPs for dropping this poisoned chalice into their laps?

The Tories cannot now win the next election - which will be held sooner rather than later - and are set on a possibly worse electoral course than in 1997. Mr Hague might as well take the blame. But my fear is that, if Tory MPs don't dump Mr Hague, there simply won't be any party left for Mr Portillo or others to lead afterwards.

The writer was Conservative MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes, 1979-1997

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