Mr Hague was too weak to stop his flawed candidate

`He could not have taken on the party activists, who adored Archer, as well as his two predecessors'
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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR is in the dock for interfering too much in his party's mayoral contest, William Hague is under attack for failing to interfere enough in his. The question being asked of the Conservative leader is, in essence, "Why didn't you block Archer?".

The suggestion is that the errant author should have been summoned before the grandly named Ethics Committee and blown apart by its noble and pure members. If the great and good on the committee had failed to do the deed, Hague should have found an alternative way of preventing the man from standing.

Unquestionably there were piles of evidence to suggest that the Archer candidacy was a precarious venture for a party which could afford no more disasters between now and the election. A cursory read of Michael Crick's biography on Archer should have been enough to get Conservative Central Office twitching very nervously. Indeed, a senior member of the party told me recently that if he had been the subject of such a biography he would have left the country, rather than have had the chutzpah to stand for mayor. Even he had underestimated the scale of Archer's chutzpah.

That person happened to be Steve Norris, a few days before the result of the Tories' ballot for their mayoral candidate was announced. He knew he would lose, but I got the impression that he still thought he would become the party's candidate. He was convinced that at some point the Archer candidacy would self-destruct. Norris was not alone. Other senior Conservatives have been smiling awkwardly at the cock-ups in the Labour party over their selection process. They knew that in Archer they had a much bigger embarrassment waiting to happen.

So even if Hague is licking his wounds now he has been extremely fortunate. This could have happened much later in the campaign. Imagine the chaos if the Archer revelations had appeared, say, next spring. Instead a more credible candidate can step into the limelight and have a few months to repair some of the damage. More than the voters realise, Hague possesses sharp political antennae. He was one of those who knew the Archer candidacy was capable of imploding at any time. So why did he not intervene and prevent the great fantasist from getting anywhere near the contest?

The answer is simple. He was not in a secure enough position as leader to take Archer on. Instead he was forced to make a virtue out of his party's "control-free" mayoral contest in comparison with Labour's, but this was a desperate attempt to extract the best out of a weak position. Struggling to make any impact in the polls, Hague could not have taken on the party activists who adored Archer, as well as his two predecessors, Major and Thatcher, who both endorsed their old friend.

It says much about the judgements of John Major and Margaret Thatcher that they persisted in reviving Archer's political career. In the face of such support, Hague could only put his hands up and let Archer pursue his latest fantasy. Of course he should have intervened to stop Archer, but he could not. This is one dimension of the whole overblown "control freakery" debate which is often ignored. All leaders like to be control freaks, but most of the time they cannot control their parties because of the wider political situation. In opposition Blair was a rare political beast, a leader who commanded all before him. Had he told his party to back the death penalty they would have complied. Certainly in opposition he would not have let an Archer type figure run for public office so close to a election. But now Blair has less control over his party. He does not have to deal with a potential mayoral candidate with Archer's dodgy past, but he still has nightmares about Ken Livingstone. Even so Blair wisely decided not to block him from standing. The so-called control freak has lost some control of Labour's internal election.

Three cheers for a bit of democracy in the Labour party, say most commentators. They argue that national leaders should not interfere in elections for the newly devolved bodies, as a matter of principle. At least they do when Blair is involved. Now, surely, the Archer affair has blurred this argument. Look what happens when leaders keep out.

In this first, tentative phase of devolution it would be quite wrong for national party leaders to step back and let it all unfold away from their prying gaze. As the pantomime being played out in London demonstrates, we are not quite ready for devolution. In a country which has been over- centralised for years it has to be eased in gently and then nurtured. Political giants are not putting their names forward in London because the capital city has not encouraged any local political talent since the abolition of the GLC (an act which Michael Heseltine revealed in the House of Commons last week to have been motivated by a desire by the Tory government to remove Ken Livingstone from power. Evidently they did not trust the voters to do it for them). The dilemma applies equally in Scotland and Wales. The Edinburgh parliament and the Cardiff assembly do not inspire, but inspirational politicians are not born overnight.

The same problem applies to local government and explains one of the most revealing statements made by Blair before the election. Inadvertently summarising the ambiguity which lies behind his premiership, he told a local government conference, "Councils will have more power under a Labour government, as long as they exercise the power responsibly". He did not expand on who would decide whether or not the elected councils were behaving in an appropriately responsible way.

But he was right to be cautious. To give unrestrained power now to some of the incompetent and, in several cases, corrupt councils which run Britain would in itself be an act of irresponsibility. Even Ken Livingstone said that candidates standing in council elections during the years in which the Tory government was taking away most of their powers should seek psychiatric help. Local government, too, has to be nurtured back into life from the centre.

The Government is being too cautious about it, but if Tony Blair had moved into Downing Street and declared dramatically, "Let a thousand flowers bloom in my new young country", he would have had several Archeresque catastrophes on his hands.

Behind all of this, the weak or eccentric candidates who wish to be London mayor, the debate over control freakery and pluralism, lies a harsh political reality. One party ruled Britain for 18 years and over that period accumulated more and more power for itself at the centre. Consequently there is no credible governing class outside Whitehall.

Margaret Thatcher was the original control freak. In more ways than one, she is responsible for her friend Lord Archer becoming Tory candidate for mayor. While Britain adjusts awkwardly to a more devolved constitution the contemporary control freaks should have their say.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'

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