We need not be squeamish about Hague's rhetoric

As Tony Blair contemplates his third anniversary in Downing Street, there will be little sign of celebration. In spite of the 1997 general election slogan "things can only get better", there is now a distinct queasiness among many of the Labour MPs who found themselves swept into Parliament on the tidal wave of Mr Blair's victory.

On Friday morning several dozen of them, especially those in the West Midlands who represent car workers, will be anxiously poring over the local election results. They will be wondering whether they can now enjoy anything more than 12 parliamentary pay packets before returning to the oblivion of college lecturing. From now on, it is probably downhill all the way for at least 40 or so, who have already become the walking dead of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

In spite of Labour's continuing lead in the national opinion polls, the Government whips' office faces a demoralising decline in its power of patronage and control over backbenchers who were previously loyal to the point of slavishness. But for these MPs, mere survival, rather than currying favour, has now become the highest priority.

In their hearts, this group of Labour MPs probably knows that the game is up for them. This, combined with the desire for survival, translates into a willingness to tell the whips where to go when they are asked to undertake the usual tasks of backbench drudgery. Unquestioning support is withheld from obviously unpopular policies such as further privatisation, and the prospect looms of more revolts on key votes.

This weekend, the hitherto loyal MP for Reading East, Martin Salter, signalled open warfare against the Government on its decision to sell off the National Air Traffic Control Services. A quick glance at Mr Salter's 2,997 majority shows why, vulnerable to a 3 per cent swing to the Tories, he has decided to make a stand for his beliefs. Mr Salter is typical of many Labour MPs who now have absolutely nothing to fear from kicking over the traces and giving the whips a bloody nose.

Contrast this situation with the mood among Conservative backbenchers at precisely the same point in Margaret Thatcher's first administration. After three years of hell in the popularity stakes, with the birth of the now defunct SDP - which at one point even pushed the Tories into third place - Mrs Thatcher turned the tide in the spring of 1982. Assisted by the Falklands crisis, her government emerged from the shadows of record unpopularity in the local elections of that year before going on, a few weeks later, to make a historic by-election gain.

Tory MPs like myself (with a surprise win in 1979 and a majority of 486) had a new spring in our step as we entered the year before the general election with a growing confidence. The power of party unity and the government whips' office became stronger, and the desire to make trouble from the backbenches reduced. Whereas Mr Blair, three years into his term, faces a darkening sky, Margaret Thatcher's troops were just beginning to enjoy the political sunshine. Only one of our number lost his seat a year later. For many Labour MPs, however, life will never be glad confident morning again.

Local election results can be highly misleading, and the end of this week will present a field day for every commentator and politician to come up with a conflicting variety of interpretations. On one conclusion, that of a likely second term for Labour, most will still be unanimous. But on another, the terms of political trade between Mr Blair and Mr Hague, there will be a more inconclusive debate. My hunch tells me that Mr Hague is, at last, gaining the upper hand. He is expected to take seats in most town halls, and anything less than 400 gains will be a disappointment to Central Office. Friday morning will give us a reasonably conclusive answer as to whether his new strategy on asylum-seekers and crime has paid off.

The only fly in the ointment will be if he is run close by the Liberal Democrats in the Romsey by-election following the death of the popular Tory MP Michael Colvin. It is hard to believe that Charles Kennedy's extravagant claims about the possibility of his party snatching the seat are anything other than the normal Liberal Democrat hype. Certainly the Liberal Democrats might persuade Labour voters in Romsey to vote for his party, but as long as the Tories win, albeit with a reduced majority, Mr Hague will be able to focus attention on his gains where it really matters: in the town halls covering Labour marginals.

The extravagant spat between Mr Hague and Mr Kennedy over asylum seekers probably has much to do with their battle for Romsey, but Mr Hague was right to emphasise the dangers of a disenfranchised electorate if there is no major political party to speak up on issues of public concern. While there may some validity in the charge of "playing the race card", Mr Hague does have a point when he says that extreme right-wing parties such as the National Front only flourish when there is no mainstream politician willing to address the subject of immigration. Mr Hague is not the first Conservative leader to face accusations of stirring up racial hatred merely because he mentions the words "immigration" and "bogus" in the context of asylum-seekers.

Mrs Thatcher faced the same outcry from Labour politicians in 1978 when, also as leader of the opposition, she talked of the fear of being "swamped" by limitless immigration. She was also pilloried by the then liberal establishment, but she ensured that voters steered clear of extremist parties. When she came to office, immigration continued, notwithstanding the British Nationality Act of 1981, but there was a feeling that she was "doing something" (even though nothing much changed). Mr Hague may be an opportunist, but I do not think he is a racist. If his task initially is to secure his "core" vote, it is inevitable that his rhetoric may be more colourful than we might like, and we should not be too squeamish. The truth is, if he were ever in office he would be far less right wing than his current language suggests. If the liberal establishment is too keen to kill off the Conservative Party, we really will have to face the possibility of a rise in support for the extremist parties which are gaining serious footholds in the parliaments of continental Europe.

The point is, the sooner Mr Hague has secured his own support and does not have to look over his shoulder at Michael Portillo or Ann Widdecombe, the sooner he can begin the next stage of the Tory recovery. This will mean reaching out to the wider electorate, and the colourful language will inevitably be toned down.

Suddenly, the prospects for Mr Hague's position within the Conservative Party are beginning to look brighter, beyond even a defeat at the next election. Then, like George W Bush in the American Republican party, he can begin the task of dumping some of the policies from which the rest of us currently recoil. Barring an accident in Romsey, Mr Hague should be entitled to reach for the champagne bottle at the end of the week.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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