Charles Kennedy's reshuffle of Liberal Democrat spokesmen was never going to be front-page news. The allocation of people who are about as far as politicians can be from being household names to responsibilities they have next to no chance of discharging in government is hardly exciting. Yet both the timing and the content have a significance which goes well beyond the short-term attention they commanded.
By promoting the rapidly rising Mark Oaten to the Home Affairs brief, Paul Burstow to Health, and above all the economically highly literate Vincent Cable to the Treasury job, Kennedy achieved several objectives at once. He demonstrated that he was not prepared to allow the party to shelter in the comforting but confining territory to the statist, tax and spending, left of Labour where so many of his activists would prefer to remain. He showed he has the personal steel to take internally painful decisions. And he made the party more frightening than it already was to a Conservative Party which, despite one poll immediately after its conference giving it a five-point lead over Labour, is still in the depths of its worst crisis since it lost office more than six years ago.
No doubt it was a coincidence that the Liberal Democrat reshuffle took place as the experienced BBC investigative journalist Michael Crick was referring to Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the material behind his story saying that Iain Duncan Smith paid his wife, Betsy, from his taxpayer-funded secretarial allowance for work she did not do. But it is a reminder that one opposition leader emerged from a by-election triumph and from his subsequent party conference unmistakably strengthened, just at the moment the other was fighting for his political life.
The future politics of the Crick story aren't easy to read. Even if the investigation that Sir Philip is now to carry out were to find in favour of the complaint - one which several MPs on all sides of the House might be in some trepidation if it were levelled against them -you can't help wondering how the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, to which Sir Philip will report, will handle the matter. They might not think it a hanging offence. And if low politics were to intrude on their deliberations, how would it influence the committee? Would the Labour members be so keen to take steps that might hasten the removal of a leader they gleefully regard as not up to the job?
Which all serves to underline the point that the story, important as it was in heating up the atmosphere of last week's Tory conference, is in several ways a distraction from the much larger questions confronting the Tory party and its leader.
Yesterday Lord Tebbit emerged to defend his protégé from critics and plotters, who he said were the same as those who had done for Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and William Hague up to and including 2001 - and had sought his own expulsion from the party last year. This is a somewhat cavalier reading of history. If, for example, he has in mind the supporters of Michael Portillo, Lord Tebbit must recall that whatever faults he may have, their idol is free of guilt in relation to the demise of Baroness Thatcher, having sought to persuade her to stay in office; if he has in mind the left of the party, then they have been so far conspicuous by their absence from the ranks of the active plotters.
But Lord Tebbit omits a bigger point still. He doesn't in his litany of past crimes cite the tormenting of John Major, which brought the last Tory government to the brink of collapse under the watchful and encouraging gaze of Lady Thatcher herself. This is precisely because so many leading shadow ministers either were, like Iain Duncan Smith, among the ringleaders, or have subsequently subscribed to the same ideological certainties as the others. This is the right-wing equivalent of what would have happened if Labour had been run in the late Eighties and Nineties by those who thought Jim Callaghan's problem was that he wasn't left-wing enough.
This is the reason that for all Oliver Letwin's media friendliness and his admirably measured language, the replacement of Iain Duncan Smith by him is unlikely to transform the Tories' fortunes under the scrutiny to which he would be subjected as leader. No doubt Mr Letwin isn't alone in wanting to chew his own arm off rather than send his children to the local comprehensive in Lambeth. But the point is that even the more congenial Mr Letwin would have a hard time showing he was not part of the same state-shrinking, asylum-fixated, europhobic gang as Mr Duncan Smith.
The policies unveiled last week - including Mr Letwin's own challenging and, in this case, unideological proposals for making local police chiefs democratically accountable - were for the most part intellectually coherent. The question whether - particularly in the case of health, where tax incentives to go private are now at the core of the Tory agenda - they are also sensible politics is open to doubt.
It is far from clear that the voting public have suddenly had a change of heart over the public services which now leads them to want the NHS dismantled rather than made to work better. Rather, given that their most persuasive complaint, in this era of managerial politics, is that the Government is not doing the job well enough, it might be better for the Tories to concentrate on displaying the high-level competence (and experience) needed to persuade the voters that they can do the same job better.
This doesn't mean that the Tories will not be helped at all by a mere change of leadership. Indeed Michael Howard, for all his image problems with uncommitted voters, would almost certainly be an improvement. Although the twice-defeated Ken Clarke still remains easily the likeliest former cabinet minister to appeal to the centre ground, Mr Howard has the ability and experience, coupled with a pragmatic approach to tax-cutting, to do at least some of the above. Even on Europe, he could yet emerge as a shade less doctrinaire than some of his potential rivals.
But it does mean that the problems of the Tory party can't just be laid at the door of one man. This is a party that has serially missed its moments. William Hague could and should have had a Neil Kinnock-Militant moment by taking on his hereditary peers and going for a fully democratic House of Lords in the first Labour term. The party beyond the ranks of the then reviled Ken Clarke could and should have raised some sharp questions early in the run-up to the Iraq war; if it had done so, it would be in a far stronger position to exploit Tony Blair's problems post-Saddam. And so on. For all this matters to the country as well as to the party. The country has never needed an effective Opposition more than it does now. And if the Conservative Party aspires to be just that, it will have to do more than swap the face at the top.Reuse content