The Tories' latest loss is bad news for politics

`An opposition is only credible if it is capable, or is at least struggling to become capable, of winning'

WHAT A coup! How we marvel yet again at the dazzling professionalism and discipline of New Labour's special forces, bringing their man in from the cold without a hitch. How elastic is the canvas of the big tent. What suction the hoover has. Isn't it wonderful that yet again the Blairites have demonstrated that when it comes to one-nation politics they are the only show in town?

And isn't it terrific that the Tories should be exposed as every bit as hopelessly extremist, and as far from recovery, as was the Labour Party of the early Eighties?

At the risk of puncturing this euphoria - only up to a point. Certainly, one of the weakest elements of the Tory high command's attack on Shaun Woodward's weekend defection to Labour is the accusation of opportunism. The claim may well be at least partly true. It is dangerously close, nevertheless, to a public admission that the Conservative Party is no place for an ambitious politician over 40 and hungry for office.

Secondly, the parallel with the early Eighties does hold good in many respects. Mr Woodward is hardly the SDP. Nor is it easy to detect any good grounds for the widespread and heavily spun view that Mr Woodward will be swiftly followed by several more MPs in defecting. But the sectarian nature of the modern Tory party, its baffling conviction that it did not win the last election because, at least on Europe, and probably on tax, it was not right-wing enough, and the determined effort to punish dissidents who deviate from the agreed party line, mirrors the Bennite tendency in the wake of Labour's 1979 defeat.

But there are also significant differences. Let it be admitted immediately in William Hague's favour, first, that opposition to the euro is, at least for now, more popular than was unilateral disarmament, or nationalisation, or withdrawal from Europe, when they were all causes espoused by the Labour left in that period. Another difference, paradoxically, is that Labour, at least until the Falklands war, was higher in the opinion polls than the Tory government was then, or the Tory party is now. And the third difference is that day after day an unedifying battle raged within the Labour Party, even after the formation of the SDP, for its heart and soul.

It's that which most distinguishes the modern Tory party from early Eighties Labour, and which makes the whole Woodward affair oddly dispiriting for all but the most ardent New Labour tribalists. Where does a young Tory on the traditional, one-nation, pro-European left, who also wants his party to be liberal on issues like Section 28 and to take - say - a progressive attitude to issues such as democratising the Lords, take his lead? For the most striking aspect of William Hague's Tory party after its worst defeat since 1906, and at a time when you would therefore expect a continual public argument over the reasons for defeat, is not that it is so divided but that it is so united.

There are several reasons for this, of course. One is the breathtaking extent to which William Hague - quite unlike Michael Foot - moved to exclude the potential leaders of dissent from the party's highest ranks. Ken Clarke, the biggest and most popular figure in the party, politely refused a place in the Shadow Cabinet after Mr Hague became leader. But to have accepted one he would have had to reject in opposition the policy on the euro which he had successfully promoted in government.

A second reason, alluded to here yesterday by Michael Brown, has been the potent fear of mandatory reselection - another Bennite throwback. This has been fuelled by the sanctioned re-entry of Referendum Party members into the Conservative ranks despite having campaigned against official candidates in the last election. Three prominent pro-European MPs, Ian Taylor, Tony Baldry and Stephen Dorrell, have been reselected. Another, Damian Green, has retained a position on the front bench without losing his integrity. Three others, David Curry, whose opponents in Skipton have a rich and powerful ally in the businessman Paul Sykes, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke himself have yet to face their local parties.

But real though these reasons may be, they cannot hold good for ever. The courage of Mr Curry, who boldly resigned from the Shadow Cabinet, let alone that of Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke, is not in doubt. Having fought the big battles in government, it must be wearying to shadow-box in opposition. And as the parliamentary party's most consistent senior pro-Europeans, they face a task made immeasurably more difficult by what they understandably see as the Government's lack of a clear lead on the euro.

Where they had expected to be leading a significant minority of their party down a path illuminated by the Prime Minister, as the Labour-Euro rebels were led by Roy Jenkins down a path illuminated by Ted Heath in 1972, they find instead that their enthusiasm for early entry looks instead like an unfashionable eccentricity.

But the stakes are even higher than that. The chances are that all three will be reselected, affording them more freedom to speak out. And that may mean abandoning the pretence that one more massive defeat will somehow magically bring the party to its senses, a view made all the more debatable by the fact that the obvious pretender, Michael Portillo, is presently of an even more Eurosceptic cast of mind than William Hague.

Ken Clarke remains the most potent force on the party's left, at the very least until the election. It may be that he has forfeited his chances of leading the party by appearing on a Britain in Europe platform with Tony Blair. But his future role remains one of the most intriguing variables in the period between now and the general election. He has excellent qualifications to go off and run the International Monetary Fund guaranteeing himself, like another exiled Tory, Chris Patten, a powerful international platform in the process.

Such a possibility certainly can't be ruled out. But he is a House of Commons man, and his instincts will be to stay there. And it will almost certainly be in the interests of his party's future to do so. Many will advise him to remain, if not silent, muted in his opposition to the rightward trend of his party, to avoid the blame for a second electoral defeat. But that point has surely been past. Had the Hattersleys or Healeys followed that logic in the early Eighties, it is now apparent, there might have been no Labour victory many years later. In an ideal world, Mr Hague would himself see Clarke as a bulwark against forces to the right of his leadership.

And this matters to more than just his party. For the gradual return to electability of Conservativism is not only in the interests of Conservatives. It is a truism to say that a credible opposition is essential for good government. But an opposition is only credible if it is capable, or is at least struggling to become capable, of winning.

We are invited to rejoice in the Woodward defection because it demonstrates that the Tory party is extremist. But what is good for New Labour, is not, it is worth reminding ourselves, axiomatically good for the country.

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