Hague hangs on while Blair starts to wobble

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The Independent Online

s George Formby used to sing, things might have been a great deal worse, for Mr William Hague, that is. If Labour had won the Eddisbury by-election, his performance in the European elections would have been as little remembered as England's victory over New Zealand in the First Test. It would have been yesterday's news. Once again the Tories would have started asking: "Have we all made a terrible mistake?"

They would have begun not exactly to perceive hitherto concealed merits in Mr Kenneth Clarke - for Mr Clarke's merits have been only too apparent, not least to Mr Clarke - but, rather, to try to persuade themselves that his Europeanism was not a matter of crucial importance. Those of us who keep the new rules for the election of the Conservative leader handy on our bedside tables in case of insomnia would have transferred them to the study for a more urgent perusal.

s it is, there is no need. Mr Clarke can continue on his contented, superficially unambitious path, a lunch here, a conference there, a bird- watching expedition somewhere else. Mr Hague will receive the statutory standing ovation at the conference at Blackpool (for the Conservatives continue to patronise that hellish resort); while Ffion, Mrs Hague, will look fetching in a new dress, only to find it promptly torn off her back by the massed harpies of Fleet Street.

Then, some time before Christmas, the speculation about Mr Hague will start up all over again. But for the moment, and subject to his troubles over Mr Michael shcroft, he should be able to get through comfortably to the beginning of the new session.

The puzzling question is why Labour felt it necessary, a week ago, to put it about that on Friday Mr Hague would be certainly a disappointed and possibly a worried man following a defeat in a by-election. t the beginning of the campaign the young people in Millbank and other places where they spin had followed a course of unwonted moderation. The People's Party, they said, had done as well as it could expect to do at the general election. Henceforward in Cheshire it would be downhill all the way.

Then the line changed. But the new line was more typical of New Labour, or of its spokespersons. They tend to boastfulness: not so much because they are boastful by nature (though they may be that too) as because they believe that this approach produces the best results. The best way of making something happen is by asserting confidently that it is going to happen.

In this they are typical of both the commercial and the political culture of the United States which they so much admire. They are like boxing managers rather than rugby coaches. boxing manager says that his boy will undoubtedly kill the other boy; whereas a rugby coach will tend to say that his boys are, at this stage, not quite ready to take on the strongest opposition. The consequence is that he looks heroic if they beat the opposition but not at all foolish if they lose. Spokespersons for the Movement favoured the latter approach. This stopped them appearing silly if things went wrong, as they often did, but contributed to a prevailing atmosphere of gloom at Transport House.

It is in this context - the disposition of New Labour to try to make things look more exciting than they really are - that we should see Mr Tony Blair's visit to the by-election on Wednesday, interposed, as in a rational world it never would have been, between talks with the Israeli prime minister and Prime Minister's Questions in the House.

The convention used to be that not only prime ministers but all leaders gave by-elections a wide berth, apart from sending messages of cheer to their candidates. It was not a constitutional convention. Nothing hinged on its observance. It was more a convention of prudent political practice. The leader, so the reasoning went, had more to lose from a defeat than to gain from a victory in a by-election he had visited beforehand. Harold Macmillan breached the convention in 1962 when he visited Stockton, to which he was sentimentally attached because he had been the MP there before the war. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan avoided these contests. Margaret Thatcher, who had little regard for convention, plunged into several of them. Mr Blair is clearly prepared to follow her.

His appearance at Eddisbury does not seem to have done him any special harm. What everyone is agreed about, however, is that he is badly in need of a holiday. In recent weeks he has not entirely been making sense. No one in politics is prepared to point this out: for his Conservative opponents are so slow, the Liberal Democrats are so muddled about what their proper attitude towards him should be, and his own backbenchers are so sycophantic.

Last week, for example, I listed his series of mis-statements on Question Time about fox-hunting. This week I instance his suggestion that Mr Hague should refer the affair of Mr shcroft to Lord Neill's committee on standards in public life. But the committee has no powers in individual cases of this kind. Mr Hague has his own committee on political ethics, which has not met once, certainly not over Mr shcroft, and about whose real existence one is entitled to entertain doubts. It is like one of those ancient charities, meeting once a year to drink the benefactor's health and then dispersing - though Mr Hague's ethical committee has not so far progressed even to this point. It is, however, different from Lord Neill's rather more active committee.

Mr Blair also told us that a Bill would be presented to the House this week prohibiting foreign donations to political parties and ensuring the disclosure of donations over pounds 5,000. s foreigners - citizens of the United States, Canada and the Irish Republic - already own a preponderant share of our newspapers, there does not seem to be any very compelling reason why foreigners should be prevented from contributing to our political parties as well. s for the disclosure limit, that is really neither here nor there and will make little difference.

The important recommendations which Lord Neill made were that the government should have no financial advantage in referendums, including one on the European single currency, and that the expenditure of political parties should be controlled or "capped" at general elections. One of the anomalies of our electoral law is that, while expenditure in individual constituencies is strictly controlled to the point of absurdity (as the recent case of Ms Fiona Jones demonstrated), central expenditure is at large. It is growing larger. It is the reason why the shcrofts and Ecclestones of this world have to be persuaded to become involved.

Unless I am mistaken, Mr Blair's Bill does not contain anything about this or about the equitable financing of referendums. Indeed, over the latter recommendation Mr Blair and his colleagues are incandescent, going round Westminster denouncing Lord Neill as a crazed Europhobe who will stop at nothing in pursuit of his cause. No doubt they are pleased that Mr Hague is embarrassed by the disclosures about the UN ambassador from Belize who, in that faraway land, supports a party somewhere to the left of Mr Blair. But they have plenty of embarrassments of their own as well.