The Tories appear cranky, damaged and unfit to govern

'The seven shadow ministers dealt a wounding blow to a home affairs spokesman who greatly irritates them'
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The Independent Online

Irony, at least, has not died in the Tory party. A senior Conservative remarked in private yesterday that by the lights of Ralph Waldo Emerson's line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", the party has proved to be packed by geniuses. When members of the Shadow Cabinet queue up to reveal all in public about their youthful dalliance with soft drugs 48 hours after Ann Widdecombe has preached zero tolerance for possession offences, no one can accuse of the party of consistency, foolish or otherwise.

Irony, at least, has not died in the Tory party. A senior Conservative remarked in private yesterday that by the lights of Ralph Waldo Emerson's line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", the party has proved to be packed by geniuses. When members of the Shadow Cabinet queue up to reveal all in public about their youthful dalliance with soft drugs 48 hours after Ann Widdecombe has preached zero tolerance for possession offences, no one can accuse of the party of consistency, foolish or otherwise.

Yesterday William Hague continued the retreat accelerated by the confessions of his token seven Shadow Cabinet members by announcing that the policy of mandatory £100 minimum fines was merely an option under consideration, and that there were "concerns" about it. The proposal will now cross the stream to that limbo from which few policies return: "further consultation, discussion and debate".

There are, admittedly, aspects of this bizarre affair which will not be an unalloyed pleasure for the Government. For a start, the decision, apparently approved by the Tory Chief Whip, James Arbuthnot, by his seven colleagues to tell the truth about their youthful - and in most cases suspiciously accidental - flirtation with cannabis, was a conscious one. Most Labour ministers, when asked, have told reporters more or less politely to mind their own business.

In doing so, the seven shadow ministers have struck a little blow for truth and against the uptightness of most political discourse. It's now a fairly safe bet that some of the undeclared ex-cannabis smokers among senior members of the Government will over time be pressed to say something. Equally, however, they can do so knowing that some of the bigger minds in the Tory party have given them entirely respectable cover. Nor, as Charles Clarke and Mo Mowlam have already proved, will they be damaged by doing so.

Second, there is something in Mr Hague's claim that he has stimulated fresh debate. Some of this debate, as Charles Kennedy has been quick to realise, may in turn even alienate at least a (probably rather small) minority of Labour supporters who are unhappy that their party is not more lenient towards soft drugs.

Third, the seven have sent the electoral equivalent of a message in a bottle to voters, especially young voters, saying that the Tory party is not quite the monolithic repository of rigid conformity Miss Widdecombe would have them believe. In part, their motives were less than high minded. Each of them ensured that they would not be embarrassed by the issue in the future; and each of them dealt a wounding blow to a home affairs spokesman who greatly irritates them. But at least the voters can now imagine that not everyone in the party agrees with Miss Widdecombe.

But these remain dubious benefits, set against the overall impact of the affair. For a start, in so far as they exist, the benefits are in the distinctly long term. And in the short term, an election will have been and gone. It scarcely needs to be repeated that the affair was a shambles from start to finish, that it has badly embarrassed the leader, and that for a party claiming to be ready for government, it went a long way to proving the contrary. More interesting is what it says about the deeper eddies within the party.

As it happens, it cannot purely be explained by the schism between the social modernisers and authoritarians within the party, deep and genuine though that is. It also exposes the perilousness of trying crudely to attack the Government, in law and order terms, from the right. The Opposition loves to fall back on all its largely obsolete rhetoric about Labour being soft on criminals. This fits neatly, of course, with Mr Hague's strange construct of the Blair government as a "liberal élite".

As if. Miss Widdecombe - the thoughtful former Home Office minister, that is, who voted for Douglas Hurd in the 1990 leadership contest, rather than the future leadership candidate with her eyes on the Norman Tebbit hard right - is in many ways no more draconian than Mr Straw. She believes, for example, that prisoners can and should be rehabilitated. And interestingly, it now looks as if she feared that her proposal for on-the-spot fines might actually be seen as a decriminalising measure. It has been overlooked in the present brouhaha that when Michael Forsyth was Scottish Secretary he brought forward proposals for "fiscal fines" treating cannabis possession as a minor, decriminalised offence, only to have his plans quashed in Cabinet by Michael Howard, then Home Secretary.

As a result, Miss Widdecombe appears - fatally - to have ensured her announcement would be seen as tough by making the fine big, mandatory, and incurring a criminal record. This was over-compensation on a grand-scale, and as electorally self-destructive in the shire counties as in the inner cities.

One analysis is that the episode was also bad personally for Mr Hague because by weakening the position of Miss Widdecombe it has reduced her effectiveness as an insurance policy against a future threat from Michael Portillo. According to this theory, the Portillistas would be reluctant to move against Mr Hague after an election for fear that the result of Mr Hague's removal would be the emergence of Miss Widdecombe.

In one respect, this was always too simple. It's true that, faced with a Portillo-Widdecombe contest, many on the centre left of the party will probably prefer the former. Equally, some on the hard right, detecting the hand of the Portillistas behind the assault on Miss Widdecombe, may well correspondingly prefer the latter. And there is now no guarantee that a Portillo-Widdecombe contest will be what happens.

Finally, the crisis has been compounded by the fact that in the end drugs is not the best issue on which to demonstrate the party's alleged new liberalism. (Since everyone is now doing it, I speak as an ex-student sometime cannabis user who remains agnostic about full decriminalisation.) What will really define a victory for a new, more inclusive, approach to the electorate will not in the end be the powerfully fraught issue of whether soft drugs have indirect adverse effects on society. Much more, it will be a function of Tory attitudes to race, to gays, and perhaps above of all, to women, currently a pathetic minority of candidates in winnable seats.

In short, the Tory party has taken damage without truly resolving the biggest ideological issue that divides its dominant right-wing faction. Last week's conference was not the right one for a party which had suddenly started to do better in the polls.

If the poll movement had come two weeks earlier - and it might have done if the Tories had been less lazy in August - then the leadership might have prepared the disciplined, harmonious line it needed so soon before an election. Instead it emerged looking - for the moment - cranky and unfit to govern. The very adjectives, come to think of it, that Denis Healey used of the Labour party after the 1983 election.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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