Is William Hague the Tory party's answer to Michael Foot?

Like early-1980s Labour, this is a party hell-bent on sacrificing its electability on the altar of doctrinal purity
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the friendlier ways of patronising William Hague is to compare him to Neil Kinnock: a modernising leader, eager to reform his party, paving the way for an eventual election victory, but not himself likely to become prime minister. After a week in Bournemouth, it is beginning to look as if a more appropriate comparison threatens to be Michael Foot.

This is not, of course, a matter of their character, age, or temperament. It is more a matter of their historic roles. Each was the last leader of their party to be elected only by their own fellow MPs. Each was chosen, in the wake of a general election defeat, as a means of uniting the party. Each had to defeat the best qualified candidate, a man of much greater national popularity with a proven record of success as Chancellor of the Exchequer. And above all, each has been forced to reach an accommodation with forces in the party which are more extreme than themselves. At the risk of straining the comparison too far, if the chatter by zealots about reselecting parliamentary candidates who do not toe the leadership line, and the mutterings about entryism by former activists in the Referendum Party, come true, then the comparisons between Tory Europhobes in 1998 and the Bennites of 1980-83 will be eerily complete.

The party's stance on EMU has no more to do with electoral politics than Labour's stance on unilateralism then; the reasons are almost entirely internal. If it wasn't, why on earth should an opposition party with a mere 165 MPs feel it has to take a position at all when a governing party with 417 remains as popular as it is without committing itself one way or the other? Ah, say, the Eurosceptics you've got it wrong. Unilateralism was proven to be unpopular. Opposition to the Euro goes with the grain of public opinion. Except that all the available polling - not to mention a rather strikingly unequivocal general election result - show that even hostile electors rather sensibly prefer to wait and see just in case EMU entry does prove in the national economic interest.

The poll issued yesterday by the beleaguered pro-Euro MEP, John Stevens, also demonstrates that the one eventuality which the Tory party is now rigidly opposing is one which 82 per cent of the electorate think will happen.

But as early-1980s Labour was, this is a party hell-bent on sacrificing its electability on the altar of doctrinal purity. In some ways this is rather magnificent. It has long been the case that the most hard line Euro-sceptics contemptuously shrug off the likely further drainage of business support for the party as a result of its stance on the EMU.

The Conservative Party is a party of principle, they say, not the mouthpiece of big business. Now some of them are even prepared to shrug off the electorate. It used to be thought that one possible downside for Labour, in terms of low politics, of Mr Blair's calling a referendum on EMU and winning it, was that by that very act he would at last reunite the Tory party.

EMU would be a fact of life and the Tory divisions argument would be over. And indeed Francis Maude, the Shadow Chancellor, appears to be positioning himself for just such a post-EMU Tory future when he acknowledges, as he did on Wednesday, that a decision to join the single currency was "not just for Christmas, it is forever, for all time". Even this view, it now emerges, is too pragmatic for the anti-EMU fundamentalists. With lofty disdain for the principle that in democratic politics the customer is always right, they intend to carry on the fight, even after a referendum defeat. These include not only Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, but also Michael Howard, the one leading Eurosceptic grown up enough to warn the leadership clearly in his speech on Wednesday against witch hunts.

But on the issue itself, he and others will be uncompromising. The Eurosceptics would split on this; but for some, if the fight to stop Britain joining EMU is lost, the next stage is the fight to convert the party to taking Britain out of it, with all the unimaginable strains on Britain's relations with the rest of Europe such a course would impose.

All this matters because without it the Tory party would actually be recovering at a time when Labour is at its most vulnerable since the election, especially on the economy. The Sun's caricature of the party this week was wrong. This creature is far from dead.

On the fringe, free and vigorous debate - rather freer and more vigorous than around the Labour Party - flourishes. Domestic policy, albeit of a right-wing, clear-blue-water, type is beginning to be in prospect. Mr Hague may even start doing things. He hinted yesterday that he has at last resolved to use his leverage in the Lords to try and outflank the Government with credible proposals for a democratic second chamber. To do so will mean confronting the most reactionary elements in his own party in ways which can only do him good. By not closing down debate on an English Parliament, he has at least shown more sign than ministers of understanding the implications for Westminster of the Scottish Parliament.

But all this, interesting as it is, is overwhelmed by the single issue of Europe. From this week's ballot result flow a number of consequences. Mr Hague has increased the salience of the one issue on which the party still appears divided. The claims of unity only work if you write off the party's biggest beasts. Behind the Europhobic rhetoric there are hints from one or two of the cleverer people around Mr Hague - and there are several stupid ones - that its European policy will have to include proposals which might eventually render Europe fit for a Conservative Britain to become more closely integrated in. The second danger from the ballot is that this will be elbowed aside by the ratcheted demands of triumphalist anti-Europeans.

The Conservative European Alliance poll shows that a pro-European breakaway party led by Heseltine and Clarke is nowhere near as unfeasible as many people in Bournemouth think. There is no sign whatever at present of Mr Clarke forming such a party; he was the first to congratulate Hague yesterday on a "very good speech". But the more reselection phobia reduces their visible support, the greater will be the forces pulling the leading pro-Europeans outward. And the more fundamentalist party policy becomes, the less possible will it be to offer Kenneth Clarke the terms under which he could rejoin the highest ranks of the party and fill again the yawning vacuum in the Shadow Cabinet.

Failure in next year's elections could destabilise Hague's leadership. But the issue is bigger than that. The young turks around Mr Hague idiotically condemn the pro-Europeans as "yesterday's men" - while, of course, still persisting in regarding Margaret Thatcher as today's woman. It is appropriate that her looming presence has dogged Mr Hague this week; for those driving his own European policy are those who have never accepted her demise in 1990 and were encouraged by her to continue their torment of John Major. Unless he can find the means of freeing himself from their grip, he will be as consumed as surely as Michael Foot was by the supporters of Tony Benn.