'None of us has a clue'

TELEPHONE AND ON-LINE FINANCE Last week in Blackpool showed that the Conservatives still have a lot to learn from Labour about life as the opposition party
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Only one member of the Shadow Cabinet was owning up to a sense of deja vu last week. Bounding down the staircase of Blackpool's Imperial Hotel, Sir Norman Fowler gamely confessed to being the sole member of William Hague's top team to have sat in Margaret Thatcher's first shadow Cabinet in 1975.

Sir Norman - the Gromyko-esque survivor of Tory politics - carries an even rarer distinction: he served then with the father of one of his current Shadow Cabinet colleagues, Francis Maude.

As a veteran of such standing, Sir Norman is one of a tiny minority of Conservatives who know about opposition. As one of his fellow Shadow Cabinet members confessed privately: "None of us really has a clue what we're doing at the moment." With little experience to call on, the Conservatives last week began to imitate the professionals. Mr Hague, the new, youthful leader, is attempting to learn from Labour.

The task, as senior Shadow ministers see it, is threefold. First, Mr Hague has embarked on a Blair-style crusade to modernise his party's ramshackle structures. The extraordinary debate on party reform in Blackpool last week marked a turning-point in Conservative Party history. With the rank and file venting its spleen at the failings of the parliamentary party, the spectacle bore remarkable similarities to Labour's travails of the early 1980s. One former Labour apparatchik, in Blackpool as a lobbyist, commented: "They are doing exactly what we did. Talking to themselves, rather than the voters. It was the one part of the week that aroused real passion." Mr Hague - with the anger of the activists having been clearly demonstrated - now has every prospect of pushing through his reforms and modernising the party.

Next comes a need to master "tactical" opposition. Here the Conservatives are at the bottom of a steep learning curve. Shadow ministers, deprived of the trappings of office such as ministerial Rovers, are floundering without a civil service machine producing speeches and "lines to take". The problem is exacerbated by the "Short money" which government allocates to opposition parties to fund parliamentary activities. Named after the Labour leader of the House, Ted Short (later Lord Glenamara), who first agreed it in 1975, the system provides tax-payers' money for parliamentary activities on the basis of the number of MPs a party has. Each seat is worth pounds 3,644.92p per annum, with an additional sum calculated on the number of votes cast for the party, with a maximum allowance of pounds 105,000.

BECAUSE of the rout of the Tories in May the first of those two components is significantly reduced from the sum Labour achieved in opposition. Most of it has been diverted to fund the leader's office and the Conservative Research Department. The party's high command is imitating Labour's centralised control systems, issuing MPs with pagers.

But this diversion of resources has left several Shadow Cabinet ministers begging or borrowing help from supporters working outside the Commons. They generally have one researcher, limited access to the resources of Conservative Central Office (itself in a state of down-sizing after the election), and a personal computer. They seem unsure what to do even with this meagre compliment. In the words of one Shadow Cabinet source: "Many colleagues in government just got used to spouting the material which was churned out endlessly by the machine. In a way government makes you quite un-political."

Labour, with 18 years of practice, mastered the art of guerrilla warfare through Parliament and the press. The Conservatives have yet to develop the instinct about which issues to attack, or the appetite needed to do so. One of their rare successes against Labour was scored by John Redwood, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when he forced the Government to back-track over the issue of Lord Simon's shares. It was a brave campaign because senior business figures were applying discreet pressure behind the scenes, urging Redwood to back off. As one of his colleagues mischievously pointed out, Redwood has an advantage because he "has recent experience of being in opposition".

The third and most important task is one of public re-definition and political re-invention. The trick, as many Tories already accept, is to concentrate - to use Blairite jargon being parroted in Blackpool - on the "big picture". Here Mr Hague made a positive, if tentative, start last week in re-positioning his party. The task is a difficult one because, unlike Labour, he has no obvious dragons to slay in the way that Mr Blair set about the unions and Clause 4 of Labour's constitution.

BUT HE rebuked Lord Tebbit for his diatribe against multi-culturalism. He endorsed the most surprising speech of the week - Michael Portillo's confession that the Tories had been seen as harsh and uncaring. Then on Friday he repudiated some of his predecessors' record, and promoted "compassion" as a central Conservative virtue. The intention is classic Blair, to appeal outside your party to new voters, while not worrying overly if traditional supporters are upset. They have nowhere else to go.

The biggest lesson of all extends to the issue which could still split the Tories - Europe. Freedom from office means that the Conservatives can afford to be flexible. For at least four years they will be responding rather than initiating. The example Labour set here is instructive. Under John Smith, it managed to be simultaneously pro-European and to oppose the Maastricht Treaty in Parliament (on the spurious grounds that the then Tory government was opting out of the social chapter).

Mr Hague is in a more precarious position. When he stood for the party leadership he made it plain that he opposed entry into a single currency for 10 years - the lifetime of this Parliament and the next. Last week the leadership sought to blur the policy by ruling it out for the "foreseeable future". The party hierarchy insists there has been no formal change of heart, but many detect a sensible dose of pragmatism.

The issue might still produce a split, and privately senior pro-Europeans last week made it clear that if asked to sign up to an indefinite commitment against EMU, resignations from the front bench and Shadow Cabinet would follow. If Blair calls a referendum before the next election it could provoke a splinter movement of pro-European MPs (lead by Kenneth Clarke) and MEPs.

Party bosses are worried about another issue - a tendency to under-rate the abilities and potential of Blair in government. One close ally of Mr Hague confided that Labour, while it is bound to lose popularity, may not present many easy targets. As he put it: "There seems to be a belief that Blair has no idea what he wants to do except to be in government, and that in two years' time he will let the reins off public spending, raise taxes and give in to the left. I don't think he will. He will be tough, and will probably go into the next election with taxes lower than at present."

And there remains one crucial ingredient missing from the recipe written by Labour when it was in opposition. The party's cohesion and loyalty were borne of 18 years in the wilderness and a determination to get back into office at almost any cost. The mood in Blackpool last week, just five months after defeat, was never going to be comparable. In the foyer of the Winter Gardens, one former Conservative Party apparatchik bumped into an ex-colleague. "How are you?" he inquired. "Just relieved to be out of it all," came the reply.

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