Leading Article: The folly of breaking the cross-party accord

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The Independent Culture
IN BRITISH history books, it is often the extended footnote which is more interesting than the main text. And so it is with the tale of Peter Temple-Morris, the Conservative MP for Leominster who yesterday completed his life's political journey and joined Labour. Never a minister, his dazzling white hair did not leave much of an after-image on the nation's television screens. But within Westminster's gothic walls, he was a player, albeit too long on the losing side. He plotted against Margaret Thatcher and for the European cause, and consistently advocated the compassionate, consensual Toryism which had been the centre of British political gravity and could now be again, under a different name. His former colleagues sneered predictably, wondering "how many times one man can leave a party". True, each stage of Mr Temple-Morris's transition has been spun out by the impresarios of New Labour. But they are able to extract so much coverage from successive stages of essentially the same story because Tory-to-Labour floor-crossings are so rare and tell us so much about New Labour's dominance and Tory irrelevance.

Which brings us to the ostensible cause of Mr Temple-Morris's final step - the Tories' break with the bipartisan consensus over Northern Ireland. Mr Temple-Morris has long been at odds with the strident Unionism of much of his former party, but the fact that Labour can attract recruits on this, of all issues, is vivid testimony to the extent of the change Tony Blair has wrought. This was the party once torn apart by arguments over whether the IRA were freedom fighters, which long contained its disagreements behind the oxymoronic policy of Irish "unity by consent". Now it is the party which has achieved a breakthrough which surely promises a future scarred by much less violence than the past 25 years.

And what is the Conservative party's response, as the legislation enacting the Good Friday Agreement goes through the House of Commons, and as the voters of Northern Ireland prepare to elect a new assembly? Along comes Andrew Mackay, the Tory spokesman, and tears up the cross-party accord which underpins the prospects of peace.

It is a tawdry spectacle, and if William Hague thinks this is the sort of foundation on which a Tory recovery can be built, we fervently hope he is wrong. Mind you, Mr Hague's views are hard to fathom. His faith in Mr Mackay was so great that he thought South Africa was the best place for him to be while the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated.

Mr Mackay yesterday insisted that the Tories "wish wherever possible to maintain a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland", but an approach is either bipartisan or it is not. And, apart from one loose phrase in the Commons, from which the Prime Minister had to be rescued by the editor of Hansard, neither he nor the text of the agreement has ever said that weapons would physically have to be handed in for terrorist prisoners to qualify for early release.

This may look like a good populist point to score for an opposition desperate to get noticed, but it is not grown-up politics. It is, unfortunately, impossible to imagine even would-be ex-terrorists handing over their weapons. What matters, in the first instance, is that they decide to stop using them. The process now moves on to the election of the assembly on Thursday. Sinn Fein's ambivalence on the question of IRA weapons means that it does not deserve the votes it will get, but it will get them, and then there is no question but that its representatives must renounce violence if they want to play a role in governing Northern Ireland.

The Tories' populist point-scoring has distracted attention from that vital point, and Mr Temple-Morris rightly described it as "inexcusable". It weakens the momentum of the peace process. Mr Hague has made a serious mistake, far greater than the carelessness in losing one of his MPs.