An unreasonable optimist: Douglas Hurd wants to give the Tories a new consensus on Europe - and basics. Andrew Marr and Donald Macintyre spoke to the man who could save John Major

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The Independent Online
THINK of the Old Tories and, chances are, you think of Douglas Hurd. In a government which seems increasingly febrile and undignified, he remains a relict of patrician calm - unflappable, poised, his standing in the party apparently undiminished by foreign policy controversies. The same qualities that so handicapped him in the leadership contest against John Major more than three years ago seem now rather valuable and rare. However confused they are about other ministers, the grassroots Tories still trust Douglas. Now he is in charge of writing the party's European manifesto, doing the thinking for the campaign widely seen as Mr Major's last chance.

This is not the way he would like to see his task. Speaking publicly for the first time about his strategy for that election, he argues that the party itself would not stand for another parliamentary coup: 'I think it would be so silly that it won't happen. The shock of what happened in 1990 is still quite strong among active Conservatives, and I think the idea of that happening again would horrify them, so it would be crazy.' It would be electorally self-destructive? 'Yes.'

Logically, that might be so. Politically, it is hard to deny that a fresh outburst of factional fighting over Europe, followed by terrible losses, could send the Conservative Party into such a jellied state that Mr Major would be putsched. Mr Hurd is well aware that the job of constructing a unifying European policy is not only intellectually difficult but, in terms of politics, essential. So how is he going about it?

The theory may sound optimistic, too convenient to be true. It is essentially that the dragon of federalist centralism has died of old age. St George is not needed: 'The founding fathers of the Community looked at a Europe which had been twice shattered in this century and they said we really mustn't let loose the nation states to do this again.' But now, argues Hurd, the danger of a war between Britain, France and Germany has gone, and with it the need for the centralising model devised to prevent it.

That being so, the centralisers are all caught on the wrong side of history. Germany, France, even President Delors, now see the need to retain the nation state and to limit the power of Brussels, leaving Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the more extreme Tory federalists out of date. Maastricht was a compromise, Hurd says. And yet the countries of Europe only just got it through by a handful of votes, in Denmark, in France, in the British Parliament. 'I think the view which is simply centralising is an old-fashioned one. There are plenty of people who hold it still but I think it's old-fashioned, and gradually it's losing ground. It's no less European to argue for the kind of Europe that I'm talking about than it to argue for what I call the old-fashioned view, that gradually, bit by bit, decision making moves to the centre . . .'

This will be hailed by all but the hard-line Europhobes as a distinct tilt to their position, a coded acknowledgement that they were right. It offers rather less to Mr Hurd's old allies on the 'Positive European' wing of the party. There will be a ban on xenophobic rhetoric in the campaign, no echoes of the disastrous 'Diet of Brussels' sloganising of the 1989 campaign. But anti-centralism is still anti-centralism, however modulated and civilised the tone in which it is expressed.

The tactics, though, are as interesting as the theory. Mr Hurd has identified the Conservative Party's relationship with the European People's Party - the grouping of mainly federalist centre-right parties in the Union - as a potential weak spot in the campaign. So the Tories will distinguish between their loose 'alliance' with sister parties, and Labour's subordinate role as a wing of the European socialist grouping. Labour will be attacked for the views of continental socialists, while the Conservatives will deny any responsibility for the views of their allies.

There is, of course, a contradiction here: if the Europeans are moving against centralism, why be so careful to distinguish the British Tories from their sister parties? But this is perhaps one of those nuances which will be lost in the campaigning.

It would be a considerable achievement to limit the Tory split on Europe. But Mr Hurd acknowledges that the campaign will be fought on the Government's general reputation too, and that ill-disciplined factionalism among Tory politicians could blow apart the carefully constructed platform. He distinguishes between real differences over policy and principle, when 'serious politicians are entitled to make their view known', and the current factionalism, which he regards as more trivial, though dangerous: 'a tendency, I don't say to start the telephone conversation, but when asked for views to chatter away without a great deal of thought, sometimes attributably, sometimes, unattributably, without considering whether the impression given really corresponds to reality. And I think that phase . . . has to be brought to an end. It has done the Labour Party a lot of harm in the past, and it will do us a lot of harm if it continues.'

Leaders can only do so much: they rely on the discipline of the party always. But is this a Government that deserves to survive? When asked whether he can imagine entering the next election with a government record of which he can feel proud, Mr Hurd gamely says that this is what he expects to happen. He lists the conventional hopes of economic recovery, progress on education and law and order, a consensus on Europe. So far as 'the basics, as they're now called' are concerned, he is clearly not hung up on the words and suggests less morally charged alternatives such as 'common sense' or 'the fundamentals'.

But what of the so-called 'sleaze factor', the idea that standards of public morality are not all they should be? Is this something that is simply of interest to the chattering classes, which will fade away with economic recovery? Mr Hurd thinks not, and takes a fairly robust view on the need for ministers and MPs to be closely scrutinised. Scandals were 'dealt with . . . through a mixture of public criticism and misfortune' which could be 'harsh'.

Unlike Lord Howe, one of his predecessors in the Foreign Office, he was relaxed about the Scott inquiry into the Matrix Churchill affair. He was, he says, 'reassured' by his appearance at the inquiry at the 'tone and content' of the issues the inquiry was concentrating on. It is too early to say, but those issues seem 'light years' from the 'penumbra' created by many of the press stories about the inquiry.

And on the Pergau dam affair, if it is being said that it's wrong to sell defence equipment to Malaysia, and it's wrong that in all circumstances Britain's aid effort should help our exporters round the country, then he says he is rather looking forward to appearing before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. But anyway, he insists, no one in his department brushes these issues aside as trivial. Every Question Time, every appearance at the Public Accounts Committee or Scott, he says, are 'huge events' and have to be treated accordingly.

What is finally striking about Douglas Hurd is his resilience, his dogged optimism where optimism seems unreasonable. It may be partly a facade, but it's also about that mysterious Tory quality, 'bottom'. This is how Conservatives used to be.

(Photograph omitted)