Mr Hague must listen and learn

Why should Ken and Hezza change their views on the most important debate of the age?
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The Independent Culture
FOR THE first time I have begun to wonder if the dear old Tory party can ever recover.

When Parliament rose for the summer recess it seemed that the Blair honeymoon might be over. The fracas over the resignation of Frank Field and the apparent end of welfare reform provided indications that the previously slumbering Conservative Party was waking up and giving the Labour government a tentative run for its money. All the Tory party had to do was to keep its nose clean while it sunned itself on the beaches of the Riviera, or wherever, and get itself, refreshed, safety to Bournemouth for this week's party conference.

But, recently, something has gone seriously awry.

Insecure kids in William Hague's back office are getting worked up about a number of fringe meetings at Bournemouth to be addressed by Michael Heseltine and others. As is the wont of youngsters, not long ago playing student union politics, a clever wheeze has to be invented to undermine the tiresome old has-beens. So they have told Mr Hague to go for the nuclear option and waste pounds 300,000 of someone's money on a bogus plebiscite to endorse the Hague "not for 10 years" opposition to the single currency.

This ruse is not working and has already backfired spectacularly. Dyed- in-the-wool Conservatives such as my parents threw their ballot papers in the bin. So did thousands of others. If the aim was to blow up Ken Clarke and Hezza, it has simply ensured that the rest of the Tory party is covered in the radioactive fall-out. The public and the media continued to be reminded that the Euro civil war still rages unabated in the Tory party. Instead of wiping the issue from the plates of hungry trouble-making journalists, we have been given even more helpings in bucket loads.

Why on earth Ken and Hezza should be expected to change their sincere and long-held views as well as maintaining a sullen silence on the most important public debate of the age, I cannot imagine.

Frankly, Mr Hague could also have saved himself a lot of time, trouble and money by scrapping his "listening to Britain" exercise and watching, instead, the current Channel 4 television series by Michael Portillo. His devastatingly clear and brutal analysis of the Tories' troubles is presented with a clarity in one of the best post-mortems on the Tory defeat I have so far seen.

Mr Portillo's most telling analysis, underlined in his Saturday essay for The Independent, is that the Tories are as unpopular today as they were in May last year. The country is as far away from engaging with or connecting to the Tories now as it was on 1 May, 1997.

Mr Portillo has at least understood the utter hatred and contempt in which the Tories are still held without forgetting why they held office for so long. He identifies a national sense of betrayal but recognises that the original objectives of the Thatcher mission are still supported by most voters. This was underlined last week, at Blackpool, where Tony Blair successfully recreated the perception of strong "no backing down" leadership reminiscent of The Lady's "not for turning" days.

Both Mr Portillo and Tony Blair recognise that it was the apparent abandonment of Tory objectives, such as low taxation, which enabled Mr Blair to squat on the Tory political territory.

Apart from Europe, where I believe Mr Portillo is wrong, his programmes are, however, liked on how to reconnect with the voters it lost last time. But that is of no relevance to the Tory party at present, which is more concerned with fighting itself rather than fighting Labour. For the moment, survival is more important than policy wonking.

By the time the Tories are of any interest to the voters there will be a single currency, up and running. The real referendum will be held by Mr Blair when he is certain it will be won. And won it will be. Not that I am happy at that, but Tories must recognise what will happen and not bank on what they hope will happen. Mr Hague will then look ridiculous and isolated. Since there is little opportunity for the Tories to influence the decision, they should keep an escape route open.

There is much to be said, therefore, for tolerating any card-carrying MP or party member who says whatever they like on the issue. No one is necessarily listening to them anyway - unless William Hague is fool enough to tell them to shut up, in which case they will get the oxygen of media interest just for the sake of devilment.

If these self-inflicted wounds do not heal by this time next year, the survival of the Conservative party as a serious political force may be in question.

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