Leading Article: Opposition is about more than simple, crude opportunism

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE'S latest intervention in the Northern Ireland peace process will do little to boost his already modest reputation for statesmanship and correspondingly depressed personal poll ratings. To end the bipartisan approach is, as the Prime Minister pointed out, to risk undermining the whole process. Of course, as Mr Hague says, the traditional bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland is not inviolable. No Opposition should be expected simply to keep mum if it sees vital national interests being sacrificed. However, in the case of Northern Ireland, where so many lives could immediately be in jeopardy, it is incumbent on the Opposition leader to behave responsibly and break the line only if there is a clear alternative course of action that promotes peace.

What is so strange about Mr Hague's approach is that he claims to be supportive of the Good Friday agreement, while behaving in a way that makes its implementation that much more difficult. What is plain irresponsible is that Mr Hague has no credible alternative policy. His Today interview with John Humphrys was a masterpiece of opportunism and evasion. Having advocated the end of prisoner releases, the point was put to him that this would mean the end of the peace process. Mr Hague replied that "there are many different permutations and possible consequences of anything you do in these situations". He went on: "The consequences, I believe, will be beneficial", without indicating what those consequences would be. Such enigmatic remarks do not amount to an alternative to the Government's policy. Mr Hague is playing politics with the peace process and people's lives.

Nor is this the end of Mr Hague's opportunism. Time and again he has parroted the meaningless slogan of being "in Europe but not run by Europe". His policy on the euro pretends to be one of principle - resting in part on questions of sovereignty - but is confined to a specific time frame of about 10 years. And, of course, he advocates renegotiating the terms of our relationship with the EU without ever saying that we could leave, for fear of being exposed as an extremist.

Opposition should be, as Harold Macmillan once said, "fun". When Parliament resumes we shall see Mr Hague having some more fun at Mr Blair's expense at Question Time. Mr Hague is good at puncturing Mr Blair's occasional "man with a mission" sanctimony. He performs a useful public service, much as Rory Bremner and Private Eye do. But there is another side to opposition: presenting a serious alternative administration to voters. This is less about detailed policies than about knowing when to resist the opportunity to score points, and play the statesman. On Northern Ireland especially. Mr Hague has badly let down himself, his party, and indeed the rest of us.