Leading article: Does Mr Hague want a shadow cabinet full of nonentitie s?

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE rumours circulating Westminster that William Hague, the Conservative leader, is considering sacking a number of experienced Shadow Cabinet members. There may well be some in the Tory hierarchy urging Mr Hague to reshuffle his team, but, at least for the present, the temptation should be resisted.

For all the Government's travails, Mr Hague seems unable to capture public trust or admiration. It must be frustrating to remain so ineffective, despite all his skill at the dispatch box and his charm on the road; the temptation to make some grand gesture is understandable, as a method of getting at least some attention.

Perhaps Mr Hague envisages repeating his coup in bouncing his party into a membership ballot on the euro. If so, he should remember that Tory feuding over Europe was not stilled by the outcome of that ballot. The popularity of his divided party remains in the doldrums; pro-Europeans such as Kenneth Clarke remain, sniping at the leadership's European policy from the back benches.

That is the danger Mr Hague faces if he gives into the wishes of some advisers and dismisses senior figures such as Michael Howard, John Redwood and Sir Norman Fowler. It may well be the case that voters switch off when they see them on television; but if they switched on to watch those senior figures embittered on the back benches attacking the leadership, the party would be in even worse trouble. Mr Hague is reported to be tired of being associated with his party's discredited past; he should beware of building a bitter and even more divisive future.

Additionally, the candidates for the sack have been comparatively effective. John Redwood's forensic abilities and appetite for hard work have been well employed shadowing the Trade portfolio: he has already seen off Margaret Beckett and Peter Mandelson. Michael Howard, though he has lapsed into a couple of unpleasant tirades in the House, has proved an able opponent of Robin Cook, landing some telling blows on the Foreign Secretary.

The whole distinction between "old" and "new" Conservatives is misconceived, for no one mentions Ann Widdecombe as a candidate for the sack. Through her good work at Health, she has been able to leave behind the furore that enveloped her as Home Office minister in the last government over the manacling of pregnant women in prison. There is no reason why other members of the Shadow Cabinet cannot leave their own pasts behind, given time.

Experience is no bad thing in a Shadow Cabinet. The instinctive knowledge of when to keep quiet, when to attack and what weaknesses to exploit is something learnt over many years in Parliament. Parliamentary speaking is an art, too. Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Home Affairs spokesman, showed the benefit of his considerable oratorical experience in Monday's debate on the homosexual age of consent. Such ability cannot just be picked up in a couple of years.

Mr Hague's bold new appointments to date are not an encouraging precedent. They include Andrew Mackay, on holiday whenever historic developments affect his Northern Ireland brief, Peter Ainsworth, the totally invisible shadow Secretary of State for Culture, and David Willetts, so disappointing at Education.

There is talent in the Parliamentary Conservative Party; Michael Ancram, for example, seems to master any brief with ease. There is new talent, too. Theresa May is reasonable, measured and televisual; Liam Fox has some style and charisma. Damian Green, the junior education spokesman, is good with the media and would give Mr Hague welcome ballast from the left of the party. But such prospects need time to grow into the Shadow Cabinet; propelling them to the front rank is not in their interests, or in Mr Hague's.

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