So many targets - why can't the Tories hit them?

This is an arrogant and often dishonest Government, which dumbs down politics to its own level
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When those who have lost hope learn to hope again only to have their hopes dashed, the ensuing disappointment is bitter. Thus it is with many Tories at the moment. A few weeks ago, with Mr Blair adrift over fuel, and the public apparently in a mood to punish him, the Tories had a glorious, febrile moment when nothing seemed impossible.

When those who have lost hope learn to hope again only to have their hopes dashed, the ensuing disappointment is bitter. Thus it is with many Tories at the moment. A few weeks ago, with Mr Blair adrift over fuel, and the public apparently in a mood to punish him, the Tories had a glorious, febrile moment when nothing seemed impossible.

Now, with Mr Blair back in a double-figure lead, there is a renewed note of grumbling dismay on the Tory benches. Though most Tory MPs would insist, and mean it, that it is far too early to write off Mr Hague, some seem less interested in the next general election than the next Tory leadership election.

The party's problem is easy to summarise: after three and a half years, it has still not learned how to be an effective Opposition. Admittedly, Mr Hague succeeded to the worst possible inheritance, Mr Blair to the best. The Major government had a first-class economic record and left office reviled. As far as most voters were concerned, the recovery began on 2 May 1997.

Indeed, Mr Blair's margin of victory understated the old government's unpopularity. At least a quarter of those who voted Tory did so through gritted teeth, because they feared that a Labour government would put up income-tax rates. When this did not happen, Labour's poll lead doubled. Most voters were simply not interested in what the Tories had to say. It would not have been easy for any leader to alter that, but a cruel fate deprived the party of two candidates who might have persuaded the electorate to open its ears.

The first, and weaker, was Michael Heseltine. He was ready to run, would probably have won and might have been able to hold the party together, if he had been prepared to compromise on Europe. I believe he would have done so; I suspect that he wanted to be Prime Minister even more than he wanted to take Britain into the single currency. Downing Street vaut bien le livre sterling. Anyway, angina put an end to his Prime Ministerial ambitions, and freed him for federasty. But there was a stronger candidate. If available, he would probably have displaced Mr Major in 1995, and might even have rivalled him in 1990. I am, of course, referring to "Kenael Howarke".

Michael Howard is decent, honourable, and highly intelligent. A thinking man's Jack Straw, he was the second most influential Home Secretary since the war - after Roy Jenkins - and he was the most effective member of the Major cabinet. He came to politics late, is only now in his prime, and has all the qualities necessary for the highest office. This is recognised by almost everyone who knows Michael and by hardly anyone who does not. The latter, alas, outnumber the former.

Kenneth Clarke is a jolly, roistering fellow, with the defects of his qualities. His slap-dash approach sometimes got him into trouble, most recently in the Phillips Report on BSE; Lord Phillips seems to have been less impressed by Mr Clarke than by any other witness. But the voters would forgive old Ken a lot of sloppiness, for he is such a splendid chap. It is easy to see him, the personification of Middle England, as John Bull in a Gilray cartoon, a tankard of ale in his massive fist and a joint of beef at his elbow, bellowing defiance at Boney and the pack of frog-eating wretches on the wrong side of the Channel.

There is only one problem. He is on the frog-eating wretches' side. Ken believes that the capital of middle England should be Brussels. Far more obstinate than Michael Heseltine, Mr Clarke would never have done a deal with the euro-sceps. He was prepared to co-operate with John Redwood, but that alliance was not as principled as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and would have been much less durable. A Clarke leadership would have condemned the Tories to internecine strife.

So the solution would have been transplant surgery to create Kenael Howarke: an opinion transplant for Ken, or a voice and face one for Michael. But with surgery still insufficiently advanced, the Tories were stuck with a young, bald, unknown leader and an equally obscure shadow cabinet.

There is talent on the Tory front bench, but it is all either too grey, too young, too odd, or Michael Portillo. In recent years, the Tories have been good at producing cerebral figures who are impressive in private but of limited ability in public. Under Mr Major, we had William Waldegrave and Peter Lilley. We now have Francis Maude, David Willetts and David Heathcoat-Amory: all heavyweights, none of them with a heavyweight's punch. There are potential future heavyweights, especially Liam Fox and Oliver Letwin, but in an ideal world they would still be highly promising deputies, not front rankers.

Ann Widdecombe is a heavyweight. More effective in the House than any member of the Hague team except Mr Hague, she is also popular in the country. But where is the judgement? This is a missile with a powerful warhead but a defective guidance system: undoubtedly a threat, but to whom?

Some would say the same of Michael Portillo, believing him to be consumed with ambition and calculation. Though this is absurdly unfair, it does place him in a dilemma. If he appears to be inactive, much of the Press will claim that he is sitting on his hands and watching William Hague stew. If he is vigorous and effective, the same journalists will accuse him of making a leadership bid. Whatever he does, Mr Portillo cannot win, unless Mr Hague starts winning.

It is not the Shadow Cabinet's fault that its leader has failed to establish himself. But after three and a half years, most voters have little idea who Mr Hague is or what he believes. That vacuum encourages them to concentrate on trivia, such as the hair and voice. But Mr Hague will only be able to escape from beauty contest politics if he switches the focus to the intellectual contest. He needs to set out his key themes and his big picture. He also needs to find a few phrases that he and the Shadow Cabinet could repeat in every speech: The Tory equivalent of "sleaze" and "22 tax increases".

It is not as if this government has failed to provide ammunition. That may be one of the Tories' problems: there are too many targets. Mr Mandelson's "chinless wonders", Clive Soley's suggestion that all old people are racists, Tony Blair's claim that ordinary people are not interested in the issues; those could be woven together with the Dome to portray an arrogant, incompetent and often dishonest government that dumbs down politics not only because it believes that the voters are dumb, but also to find its own level.

The scope for attacks is almost unlimited, and there are signs of public discontent. Many voters are ready to conclude that Mr Blair was all spin and no delivery and would now vote enthusiastically for the proposition that the government deserves a kick in the pants; the fuel crisis showed just how volatile opinion can be.

Mr Hague will have to be far more positive and forceful if he is to move that volatility in his direction. Over the next few months, he must start being an effective Opposition leader, if he is to have any hope of becoming Prime Minister.

Comments