The long, hard slog of opposition

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The Independent Culture
"THURSDAY, 8 JANUARY: Half a column in the `Telegraph', an interview for `Today' and a few paragraphs in the rest. The party always complains that the Shadow Cabinet does not get enough coverage - but it is inevitable in opposition. The press are not as interested in the views of politicians without power - and rightly so. Government affects everyone: opposition is normally just an expression of view."

That was my introspective lament on the fate of a press campaign. I recorded it in a political diary I kept - not last month, but in January 1976. I was then a member of the shadow cabinet not of William Hague, but of Margaret Thatcher.

Our appointment a year earlier had not exactly been welcomed by the press. The leader writers regretted the passing of the old guard such as Robert Carr and Peter Walker and none too politely asked about the credentials of Fowler, Younger and Oppenheim.

Magisterially, The Times pronounced that the new shadow Industry Secretary was simply "not of the same weight" as Tony Benn, the minister he shadowed. And who was this insignificant political player? Michael Heseltine. Margaret Thatcher had a turbulent time. She was too middle class, too right wing, too inexperienced. Who had ever heard of a woman being prime minister of this country?

There is a revealing piece in Ted Heath's autobiography which recalls that as late November 1978 most of the public thought that Heath rather than Thatcher would make the best Conservative prime minister.

Thus anyone with a glimmer of understanding of post-war political history will understand that opposition is never an easy time. It was not easy for Margaret Thatcher. It was not easy for Ted Heath before his victory in 1970. It was not easy for Winston Churchill before the 1950 election. Nor can anyone seriously claim that in general it has been any better for Labour. True, they did well in the post-1992 period, but that was because the Tory party insisted on public displays of disunity.

The same opinion polls, such as the survey of party officials in The Independent last Saturday, which reveal the relative anonymity of shadow spokesmen, found the same position with Labour before 1997.

In one respect the situation has become worse for the Shadow Cabinet of 1999. Parliament goes largely unreported. As Ken Clarke observes: if you want to keep a secret, say it on the floor of the Commons. In previous days William Hague's mastery of the Commons and his undoubted talent as a speaker - better than Heath, Major and Thatcher - would win him plaudits. Today, Parliament is being shunted into second place and reputations take longer to make.

Now, none of this is to excuse ineffective opposition. Ann Widdecombe demonstrates that it is certainly possible to make an impact. But it is an argument for rejecting suggested panaceas such as the execution of any shadow minister who happens to have been a member of the last government.

As it happens, I was not a member of the last government, although I did have a walk-on part as party chairman. Now, as a member of the Shadow Cabinet, I regard it as one of my main tasks to encourage new talents and to help bring them into the Shadow Cabinet.

One of the unrecognised features of the Conservative Party today in Parliament is that there is an exceptional reservoir of talent. It is these politicians that are the leaders of the new, emerging Tory party. But to go from there and argue for the exclusion of anyone who has been associated with the previous regime, is barmy.

The full idiocy of the argument comes when the two chief targets of the lunch-time briefers prove to be Michael Howard and John Redwood. By any standards they are two of the most effective shadow ministers around the Shadow Cabinet table.

Indeed, rather than excluding the old guard, there is a strong case for bringing back one or two members of the last government who are now on the back benches. Virginia Bottomley is a prime example of the kind of politician I have in mind.

Sadly, there seem to be some who genuinely believe that everything done by the Tories in the past was wrong. But we would not have won four elections in a row without an effective organisation. This was the party which reformed the unions, introduced privatisation and created one of the strongest economies in Europe. The greatest tribute to our past record is that half of our policies are being pursued by the present government.

Of course, there were mistakes and we should learn from them. We need to review all the policy areas. But one thing is certain: discreet political lunches with the ill-disguised sub-plot "I am terribly clever but the others are all idiots" will not win elections. Better that everyone should recognise that opposition is hard work and hard pounding, and get on with it.

The writer is shadow Home Secretary