There is hope - even Wilson was boring at first

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The Independent Online
A week ago I wrote that Mr Kenneth Clarke was fated to be the Lord Healey of 1997. I take no pleasure in or credit from the prediction, for last Thursday I thought, with the rest of my colleagues, that Mr Clarke might just pull it off. Altogether what used to be called the gentlemen of the press have not covered themselves in glory. Some of us assumed that former candidates - in the second round, Mr Michael Howard and Mr Peter Lilley, in the third, Mr John Redwood - could "deliver" whole blocks of their supporters.

This they could not do. Candidates could not do it even in the old Parliamentary Labour Party. The only people who could were trade union officials, who had the largest holding in the Labour electoral college from 1981 to 1993.

Mr Michael Foot was the last Labour leader to be elected under the old (and in my view superior) electoral system where the franchise was confined to the parliamentary party. Mr William Hague looks like being the last Conservative leader to be elected under the similar though more complicated system which was inaugurated by the late Humphry Berkeley and modified by Lord Home. He talks of resubmitting himself for the approval of the constituencies or, anyway, of the chairmen. Of course he will get it, for he is now their leader.

Like Mr Foot, he is opposed to the European Union. Like him, he is the "unity candidate", preferred to a more robust rival who had led in previous ballots. Inevitably there are differences. Mr Foot had - still has - more hair. And though not an outstanding success as party leader, he was never a bore.

Mr Hague, by contrast, gives all the indications of being a bore of international standard. He could open the boring not only for Yorkshire but for England and conceivably, once he has had some top-level experience of the boring game, for a World XI that would inevitably be dominated by the Swedes, the Swiss and the Canadians.

Already he is equipped with a fine turn of cliche which should, so to speak, stand him in good stead when trying to combat the fierce fast bowling that will inevitably come his way in the testing months ahead. In his inaugural address at Central Office, he said they had to pick themselves up and dust themselves down; sweep away the cobwebs; engage in a long, hard grind (which drew no titters); and use every tool at their disposal. "My God, that means a job for Michael Fabricant," my neighbour remarked.

Harold Wilson, to whom Mr Hague has also been compared, was very boring too when he became President of the Board of Trade at 31. So he remained for many years, until he made a decision to turn himself into a funny speaker. The other parallel is with Sir Edward Heath, who was certainly not a funny speaker at all, but was elected leader because he was thought to match Wilson in other crucial respects.

Mr Hague has been elected partly because he is even younger than Mr Tony Blair. And certainly there is abundant scope for an active opposition, even for one with only 164 representatives (210 if you count the Liberal Democrats, as probably you should not). Alas, the spots where the Government is most vulnerable are those which Mr Hague and his colleagues may be most disinclined to attack.

It was Iain Macleod, I think, who coined the phrase "the nanny state". Though Lady Thatcher was an economic libertarian, up to a point, she was something of a social authoritarian, the strictest of nannies This, to some people, was part of her appeal. She was persuaded to give her somewhat manically expressed support to Mr Hague when it appeared possible that the hated Ken Clarke might win. ("The name is Hague. Have you got that?") Mr Hague is clever enough to realise that, while Margaret Thatcher Mark II will not run - apart from anything else, he is the wrong sex - it is at least more appealing than John Major Mark II.

We have not yet been presented with Mr Jack Straw's Slaughter of the Firstborn (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. But already the Labour government has shown signs of bossiness worthy of Old Mother Thatcher herself. Sometimes Mr Blair's new chums in what used to be the Tory tabloids express their concern, as they have over the raising of the age of consent for fireworks, which seems to me (in most matters a dogmatic libertarian) an eminently sensible restriction on adolescent freedom.

But other pieces of bossiness win Tory approval. An example is border controls; passports; the continuing employment of assorted jacks-in-office at our sea- and airports. I have yet to come across a lucid summary of what was agreed in Amsterdam, or even one in connected sentences. I hope to do the job for myself when the treaty has been published by the Stationery Office and I can pick up a free copy from the Vote Office in the House of Commons (one of the few perks in my humdrum life, and an increasingly valuable one when the newly privatised government publisher is charging pounds 7 for a day's Hansard).

Mr Blair is very strong on border controls; or so we are told. The Tories love this. So do the tabloids which, I suppose, we can no longer call Tory. Battling Maggie has been succeeded by Tough Tony. How long he can keep up this pose is another matter. In the meantime, here is a question which has long been puzzling me and which one of Mr Blair's young ladies or gentlemen (or one of Mr Straw's would do equally well) might help to resolve.

When the Irish Republic became an independent state, the right of its citizens and of ours to unimpeded entry into and departure from the two countries was preserved insofar as the UK mainland was concerned. Citizens of the republic residing here also had a right to vote in parliamentary elections which, unlike free entry and exit, was not reciprocated. At the moment, I am not arguing about whether these rights or privileges were or are justified. It certainly seems odd, however, that when the Government asserts - as it does, and as previous administrations did - that one of the principal arguments for maintaining controls is the "fight against terrorism", Mr Seamus O'Semtex can nevertheless leave the Emerald Isle and arrive at, say, Stansted Airport without inquiry or impediment.

The Irish Republic has long been one of the most loyal members of the European Union. There are several reasons for this. One is that the republic gains financially. Another is that the union enables it to cut a bigger dash at that fine old hostelry the Bar of World Opinion than it would otherwise do. And another is that its ministers and officials are widely regarded as more attractive personally than the representatives of Her Britannic Majesty, as no doubt they are, being usually better speakers of English.

It is highly unlikely that, in the end, the republic will not fall in with the rest of Europe. What then in practice is to prevent someone from leaving Paris, arriving in Dublin, spending a few nights at O'Malley's Select Private Hotel and then flying to London? What, come to that, is there to prevent such a person from undertaking this expedition now? I only ask. I do not really expect a proper answer from Mr Blair - still less from Mr Hague.

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