Steve Richards: While the Tories squabble about their leadership rules, Tony Blair strides forward

Michael Howard's ambitious reforms are an unwise choice for a final act as a party leader
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In politics, the past is an unreliable guide. Yet throughout their traumatic period in opposition, the Conservatives have sought parallels with Labour's travails in the 1980s and 1990s. For a time, William Hague was cast as Neil Kinnock, a reforming leader doomed to defeat. I have heard comparisons being made of Michael Howard and John Smith, two experienced figures that led their parties briefly in a calm prelude before power was seized once more.

None of these parallels stand up to more than a few seconds' scrutiny. Mr Hague made no progress in four years and Mr Kinnock had achieved a fair amount in eight. Mr Howard acquired the leadership in an entirely different context to John Smith. Mr Howard knew he had a limited amount of time. Mr Smith did not. But while the past sheds only limited light on the present, it is one of the few guides we have. An addictive joy of politics is that no one knows for sure what will happen next. At least the past has happened.

As far as the Conservatives are concerned, I see echoes not with Labour in 1983, 1987 or 1992. They are closer to Labour's position after its first election defeat in 1979.

Here the parallels are more precise. After the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan decided to stay on in his post in order to calm his party down and clarify the rules for electing a new leader. Some on the left of his party wanted the leader elected largely by the party members and trade unionists. Others were determined to allow Labour MPs alone to continue electing the leader. Mr Callaghan discovered that his authority as leader was draining away. Everyone knew he was not going to fight the next election. He would be gone soon. A civil war erupted partly over internal party democracy. Mr Callaghan could not control the debate or the outcome.

In the end, the rules for electing a leader were changed at the infamous Wembley conference in 1981 soon after Mr Callaghan had resigned as leader. The new rules were convoluted, undemocratic and not what he had planned at all. I hasten to add that the Wembley conference was not the end of the matter. The party's constitution was the source of raging rows for years to come.

Mr Howard is being optimistic. The consultation paper on changes to his party's organisation is being distributed now. He hopes that matters will be concluded by August. When the Labour Party embarked on this thorny debate in 1979, matters were not resolved until the autumn of 1993, when it agreed on the leadership rules that still apply. They rowed for 14 years.

Like Mr Callaghan in 1979, Mr Howard is staying on for honourable reasons. After a period of draining government, Mr Callaghan could have called it a day and headed for his Sussex farm, from which he derived considerable pleasure. He knew he would not be Prime Minister again. There were no selfish motives for battling it out as a defeated Leader of the Opposition. But he thought mistakenly that he was best placed to conduct the election post mortem and keep his warring party more or less united as it contemplated internal reforms. He was being too dutiful for his party's good.

After 1997, Mr Howard had already demonstrated an admirable sense of political duty, staying on in the Shadow Cabinet when most of his former cabinet colleagues stepped off the sinking ship and headed for lucrative life rafts. He did so again by taking over the leadership when he must have known his chances of becoming Prime Minister were virtually non-existent. After the election he could have spent more time enjoying the countryside around his home in Kent and watching Liverpool, a team that he passionately supports. Instead he chose to reform his party's constitution. In this case Mr Howard has also been too dutiful.

Our erratic guide - the political past - suggests that sweeping internal reforms can only be carried out successfully by a leader at the start of a reign. Mr Blair demonstrated this with the abolition of Clause Four of Labour's constitution, as did John Smith when he changed the way a leader was elected in the dramatic party conference of 1993.

In fairness to Mr Howard, he had no such option when he became leader, as the general election was moving into view. But his ambitious reforms are an unwise choice for a final act as a party leader. Conservative MPs tend to be restive at the best of times. Now they can stir without worrying about alienating a leader who plans to depart at the end of the year.

Yet Mr Howard's timetable for reform, which he plans to stick to, is the minimum required. MPs who are calling for the process to be speeded up should be reminded that it took Labour those 14 wretched years to decide how to elect a leader.

The mirror image in 1979 also applies now. While Labour rowed about how to elect its leader, the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had acres of unexpected political space. She attracted headlines about being the most unpopular prime minister in the 20th century, and Labour hardly noticed as it argued over whether the trade union block votes should form 40 per cent of the electoral college.

Now it is Tony Blair who finds himself with political room while the Conservatives row. The hysterical calls suggesting that he should resign immediately having won an election have faded. Gordon Brown appears relaxed. Labour MPs elected the pro-war Ann Clwyd as their parliamentary chairwoman.

It is probable also that Mr Blair will not have to call a referendum. As I have argued before, if the French reject the constitution this weekend there will be a crisis in Europe that will not easily be resolved, certainly not within the six months of the British presidency that begins in July. There will be problems for Mr Blair in these circumstances, but they are not as nightmarish as those he would have faced had he lost a referendum in Britain.

I get the impression Europe has become a second-order issue for Mr Blair. I know for certain that he has given up on what he once described as his "historic objective" of ending Britain's ambiguous relations with Europe. He believes that even if he were to win a referendum in Britain, the ambiguity would persist, largely because of the Eurosceptic media. Mr Blair is staying on above all to implement reforms of the public services.

I began by pointing out that the past is an unreliable guide. When Mrs Thatcher started to make use of her political space in 1979, she had more than a decade of power to go. Gordon Brown's newly discovered patience will almost certainly not last for more than 18 months. Labour MPs will get restless too.

It is also possible that, under whatever system they devise, the Tories will elect a formidable leader. But for now it is Mr Blair who strides on.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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