Despite the substantive shortcomings now manifest in Tony Blair's administration, I have found to my regret that the sense of disaffection towards the Conservative Party and its leadership has, if anything, worsened since the general election. Morale among party agents has reached crisis point, and there is a wide sense of distrust towards the so-called "reform process" which appears to many people, myself included, to represent nothing so much as a centralisation of power.
To announce a new ballot of party members, against all precedent and with only a fortnight's notice, is unjustifiable. If the Labour government was to announce a national referendum on the question of a single currency with only two weeks' notice, to be held before Parliament had debated the matter, the Conservative front bench would be beside itself with rage - and rightly so.
It is now obvious that this move had been carefully planned and organised for some time. We are told that more than 100 meetings to be addressed by the leadership have been arranged. All the expenses will have to be covered by party funds, including the circulation of propaganda. Those holding a different view now have no time in which to organise a campaign, the cost of which would have to come out of their own pockets.
Decisions of this kind illustrate the increasing tendency within the Conservative Party for huge power to be seized by the leader and Central Office. It has been alleged that this ballot is supposed to unite the party. It will do nothing of the sort. All it will achieve will be to institutionalise the divisions within our ranks. No wonder Kenneth Clarke and other prominent members are having nothing to do with it.
I fear that the real reason for this poll is to seek out and "name" those remaining pro-Europeans in the party through some McCarthyite witch- hunt. But this is a huge mistake. Politicians such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine are extremely respected and popular in the country at a time when the Conservative Party's appeal is stuck at a hideously low level. They are not some sort of lunatic fringe intent on destroying the party. We urgently need their experience and expertise to take the fight back to Labour.
There are precious few established politicians in the Shadow Cabinet and to marginalise our household names at this time is suicidal. Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden were all in a minority position in the Conservative Party in the 1930s. But they had a huge following amongst the general public and, thankfully, the party's leaders were soon forced to give way and listen to them.
We have to learn the art of opposition. At this stage in the Parliament, with only 164 MPs and such strong views on both sides, does the Conservative Party actually need a definitive policy on this question? If Lady Thatcher is to be believed, we will not be in government after the next election. If she is right then the Conservative Party will be in opposition for the time scale that William Hague has set down for the party's opposition to a single currency. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that he will be prime minister when the time to decide arrives. But what if he was? This misguided policy would force him to oppose the euro even if events had shown that it was proving a tremendous success.
The pro-Europeans may now be in a minority position within the greatly reduced membership of the Conservative Party, but the election result last year proved beyond doubt that pro-Europeans from whatever party have majority support in the country. Furthermore, unlike the pro-European moderates who were purged from the Labour Party back in the early 1980s - with predictably disastrous results - I am sure that we have the stomach for the fight against any attempts at "ethnic cleansing" in our party.
What, then, is the answer? It is, in fact, very simple. William Hague could give a free vote to all backbench MPs - as we did during the important vote of principle concerning our accession to the European Community in October 1971. We recognised then that our accession to the EC was an issue of conscience as well as practical politics and I can well remember watching as the Labour Party descended into anarchy and chaos.
Sixty-nine of its MPs ignored the three-line whip and voted with the Conservative government that night, and Labour remained riven on the issue for a generation. Harold Wilson made the mistake of treating European policy as an internal party issue, rather than a national issue. Mr Hague must not do the same.
As with the Labour Party in the early 1970s, the current Conservative leadership position on Europe is determined entirely by the perceived political interests of the leadership itself.
Meanwhile, we are allowing our political opponents to steal what should be our clothes and portray themselves as positive and forward-looking on European as well as other questions, which can only prolong the period before we return to office.
One of the advantages of a spell in opposition, particularly in the face of a three-figure government majority, is that members of the party have chance to let off a bit of steam, and give voice to new ideas. The hard- line whipping forced upon a government with a majority in single figures two years ago is plainly unnecessary in today's Conservative Party. The leadership also needs to bear in mind that MPs are accountable to all their constituents by whom they are elected and they should exercise their judgement on their behalf. It is our duty to act in their interests and in accordance with our assessment of where the national interest lies.
Fundamental issues of national policy cannot be decided upon purely as an attempt to shore up the careers of a few individuals. I hope that the party leadership soon wakes up to the political situation outside our party and reaches out, widening our appeal - rather than working to narrow it yet further.Reuse content