Has anyone seen the Tory party?

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week I participated in the new BBC Four series of What if? programmes. We were addressing the question of what would have been the course of subsequent political events if Edwina Currie had revealed her affair with John Major in the immediate aftermath of his "Back to Basics" speech at the Conservative Party conference in 1993. But another interesting "what if?" would have been to consider what might have happened, during a typical Tory summer recess in the 1990s, if the David Kelly tragedy had occurred on Mr Major's watch.

Close your eyes and replace every one of today's combatants with the Tory names at the time. Imagine that the defence secretary was either Malcolm Rifkind or Michael Portillo. Suppose that they had gone off on holiday at the same time as the funeral and that Mr Major himself was enjoying a freebie holiday in some palatial retreat in Barbados owned by a millionaire pop star. Snappers would have been orchestrated by every tabloid (probably in cahoots with the Labour Party) to get a photo of him in a deck chair which would have then been printed alongside the funeral reports.

Consider the outrage if, in the meantime, a Number 10 press officer - a civil servant - had made the "Walter Mitty" comment. Think of the justified anger there would have been, already, from every Labour opposition spokesman and backbench MP. Think also of the disgust if a Tory-dominated Foreign Affairs select committee had been directly implicated in the events leading to the suicide.

Imagine the torrent of comments which would have poured from Tony Blair, the then Leader of the Opposition, about a Tory government stopping at nothing - even driving civil servants to suicide - to cling on to office. The attacks would have been spiced up with accusations of the Government corrupting civil servants for political purposes. Heaven only knows what Mr Blair, in opposition, would have been saying about a government attempting to bully the BBC.

Mr Blair and his team would have led such a vicious assault that demands for a recall of Parliament to debate a motion of no confidence in the Government might have been impossible to resist. All his front benchers would have been recalled from the beaches and dispatched to every TV studio in the land. Attempts by Mr Major to accuse them of making political capital would have got nowhere. It is quite possible that the collective impact of events would have led to the fall of his government - even if he had pleaded for the voters, the media and MPs to await the outcome of an independent inquiry.

Now open your eyes to the torpor that seems to have overtaken the present official Opposition after the events of the past week. Of course it was perfectly reasonable for the Tories to hold their fire, a fortnight ago, when the tragedy first unfolded. Mr Blair's initial decision to call in Lord Hutton more or less justified the restrained and measured response of Oliver Letwin, who got the tone right at the time. But despite Mr Blair's call for "restraint" there has since been a subsequent, orchestrated campaign led by Downing Street, to blacken Dr Kelly's name in advance of the inquiry. The Opposition should revise its tactics.

But where is the Tory party? It is not as though we have even got to the grouse shooting season - which used to be the only excuse for long Tory absences. The quiet man, Iain Duncan Smith, seems to have extended his approach so that the Tory party is now the silent party. The only real activity seems to be centred on a campaign to replace Theresa May as chairman of the party with Tim Yeo, hardly the best line of attack when the Government is on the ropes.

Instead, the airwaves have been monopolised by Charles Kennedy and his colleague, Menzies Campbell, who have made the running. The Liberal Democrats have seized the opportunity to step into the vacant space where the Tories should be. Yesterday, on two separate but unrelated issues, Simon Hughes, the party's home affairs spokesman, and Dr Evan Harris, the health spokesman, appeared within an hour of each other on the Today programme.

What is so ridiculous is that David Davis, who hates holidays and is standing by in his Yorkshire constituency, has been told by some backroom idiots in Conservative Central Office, to keep off the airwaves. This is in spite of the fact that he shadows John Prescott, who is currently minding the shop. Mr Davis appears to have displayed his frustration with this strategy when he offered a comment to this newspaper about the role of Tom Kelly, the press officer in the eye of the current storm.

It is a fine line for an opposition to tread when a political crisis results in tragedy, and Mr Duncan Smith is right to take care not to be accused of making cheap political capital. But the Hutton inquiry must not be allowed to stop legitimate debate on the serious issues raised by the recent goings on in the Downing Street press office. Mr Davis can be relied upon to approach these matters with the same gravitas as Mr Kennedy and Mr Campbell.

In the meantime, it is no wonder that the Liberal Democrats have been enjoying a revival in the latest opinion poll, where they have leapt from 20 per cent to 25 per cent - while the Tories still remain two points behind Labour.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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