It's been a crazy, lazysummer for the Tories

'A sense of bloodlust and hunger for power appears absent from the Opposition front bench this year'

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As Tony Blair returns to his desk tomorrow morning, he should ask his party officials to send a crate of best bitter to his deputy, John Prescott, who has kept the Government ticking over without any mishaps during the silly season. August has, in the past, been a bit of a risky time for Mr Prescott, but he is owed a debt of considerable gratitude this year by the Prime Minister, for keeping the summer heat off the Government.

As Tony Blair returns to his desk tomorrow morning, he should ask his party officials to send a crate of best bitter to his deputy, John Prescott, who has kept the Government ticking over without any mishaps during the silly season. August has, in the past, been a bit of a risky time for Mr Prescott, but he is owed a debt of considerable gratitude this year by the Prime Minister, for keeping the summer heat off the Government.

The feeling of general well-being towards the Government is most clearly seen in the findings of the latest Mori opinion poll. Without lifting a finger, Mr Blair has seen his fortunes restored. Peace and quiet under the benign caretakership of Mr Prescott are the best tactics for a Government blessed with a buoyant economy.

Conversely, the message for William Hague is that the Tories have failed to capitalise on their stronger showing prior to the recess, and have shown a lazy complacency by putting their holidays first, thereby allowing the Government a free ride. Mr Hague may not be in a mood similarly to thank David Davis, the senior Tory backbencher, with 14 pints of his favourite Yorkshire ale for his efforts during the August lull, but he should heed Mr Davis's criticisms of the Tories' failure to capitalise on the thin news agenda.

Mr Davis, in his capacity as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, has set a fine example of how to take advantage of the silly season by issuing a plethora of reports from his committee. He was therefore entitled to a hearing when he said that the Tories should have followed the example of the Labour opposition in August 1996, when they harried the Major government with nationwide publicity campaigns and daily assaults on policy.

Mr Davis is right to focus on the comparison. Looking back at the press cuttings of four years ago, there was not a single announcement from the Major government that did not earn a riposte from Labour. Even the tired old trick of demanding the recall of Parliament was brought out. It all ensured that the then opposition was in the news on its own terms.

John Prescott was rampaging across the country with his British seaside campaign, "Same old Tories. Same old lies". Meanwhile, Glenda Jackson was canvassing British holidaymakers abroad telling anyone who'd listen, and quite a few who wouldn't, that: "While we're lying in the sun, the Tories are lying back at home." These publicity stunts may have raised nothing more than bored eyebrows from the deckchairs, but they nevertheless reinforced the image of an opposition party both hungry and determined to win power.

That sense of bloodlust and hunger appears absent from the Opposition this summer. During the past fortnight, we have had the annual fuss and bother over standards of A-level and GCSE passes. One might have thought that the Tory spokeswoman, Theresa May, would have timed her break to be on hand to weigh in during this debate. We have heard not a squeak from her.

Instead, however, we have a cheap and nasty attempt by Dr Liam Fox, the shadow health spokesman, to remind us all of the sheer racism and nastiness of the Conservative Party with his comments yesterday about foreign doctors, although Dr Fox denies the charge of racism. Clearly suffering from holiday sunstroke, Dr Fox blunders in with a call for remedial English classes not only for doctors who have qualified abroad but also for those who have been practising in the UK for a number of years. Now Mr Hague will be sidetracked into having to fend off even more attacks on his party's whole attitude to foreigners.

It is now clear that "skinhead Conservatism" alone will be insufficient even to maintain the party's present number of MPs. The swivel-eyed tendency in the party can bang on about "the family" and Section 28 as much as they like, but such issues are similar to capital punishment - the public may be vocal in its support, and the party workers still more so, but very few votes actually change hands at election time over these issues. Ivan Massow's defection clearly struck a chord with many voters and served to reinforce the image of a "nasty party".

Thank goodness, then, for Steve Norris's comments that the party must deal with its anti-women, racist and homophobic attitudes. The fact that he has been appointed a vice-chairman by Mr Hague gives me a modicum of confidence that the Tory leader recognises, at last, the institutional prejudice within the party against women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals.

This prejudice against gays reflects itself when a regular list of suspects from the backbenches (led by Gerald Howarth, Julian Brazier and Julian Lewis) use every opportunity to speak out during parliamentary debates and television interviews. Often the front bench simply avoids talking about such issues but, to the outsider, it is these backbenchers who set the tone and ensure that there is a general impression of Tory callousness.

Just why there is lingering prejudice when, in fairness to Mr Hague, the Tory party employs so many gay men in Central Office and shadow ministers' offices, is hard to understand. This phenomenon proves to me that Mr Hague is actually a decent and tolerant individual. There are also more closet homosexuals, married and unmarried, on the Tory backbenches than in any other party. Many of these cheerfully turn up to the social round of London gay parties which I attend, having voted against the repeal of Section 28. What is clear is that, in Mr Hague's Tory party, public and private behaviour do not always coincide.

Attention will now focus, however, on the draft manifesto, due to be published shortly, for endorsement by the membership. Rumour has it that severe disagreements within the Shadow Cabinet are complicating this exercise. Speculation is mounting that housing benefit will be abolished in order to give Michael Portillo the ability to counter Labour charges of a "black hole" of £16bn in Tory public-expenditure plans.

This would be a bold move but hardly electorally appealing. Pension reform on the basis of a revised "pension plus" proposal, which surfaced briefly during the 1997 election, may also be another possible area of fruitful new policy development, but it is hardly eye-catching or headline-grabbing - let alone vote-grabbing.

Frankly, the party leadership should resist too much in the way of shopping lists. What matters more than anything, in the light of the latest polls, is a statement of tone and general philosophy. A little tolerance and humanity, some "compassionate Conservatism" if you like, would be a better bet.

Time, however, is no longer on the Tories' side. They must pray that Mr Blair is not tempted to cash in early on his party's revival by holding a snap October election - a temptation, I believe, he has not yet entirely resisted. Mr Hague is still the Tories' best hope, but he must simply stop them from appearing so nasty.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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