Hague needs to start an argument within his own ranks

Donald Macintyre on the way forward for the Tories
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Being leader of the Opposition can be a miserable job at the best of times. When the defeat has been as comprehensive as the one in May, when the Government's honeymoon is as long as Tony Blair's, when gurus such as the philosopher John Gray are telling anyone who will listen that Conservatism is good and dead, and when one of your prominent ex-MPs has just defected, these are not the best of times. For a lot of this, William Hague cannot remotely be blamed. A combination of Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill would be finding leadership difficult under these circumstances. And no, Tories have not yet started driving round with "Don't blame me, I voted for Kenneth Clarke" bumper stickers on their cars. There are nevertheless some convincing signs that Hague is making a bad situation worse.

It was not smart for Hague to complain, in his rather uneasy interview with Sir David Frost on Sunday, that the Government had made party political capital out of its role in the funeral arrangements for Diana, Princess of Wales. Even if it were true, and even if it didn't look a rather petty case of crying foul after the game is over, public opinion was so obviously on the Government's side that it was never going to be a persuasive case to run. For the public, in their innocence, the arcane protocol surrounding what can and cannot be said by politicians about their dealings with the Royal Family is probably part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That would matter less if it were the only case of bad advice, bad judgement, or both. But it isn't, as a suggestive example shows. Michael Ancram was an intelligent and professional Northern Ireland minister, but was it really sensible to pick the heir to the 12th Marquess of Lothian and an expatriate Scot who now sits for Devizes to handle devolution and Lords reform? Michael Ancram is influential on Hague's handling of the constitution. And that handling has not exactly shown the surest of touches. Perhaps it would have been unwise - and a betrayal of the Unionist rump of the Scottish Tory party - to switch policy on devolution after the general election. There was nothing discreditable about campaigning against Home Rule. But to say, in a considered statement the morning after the result, that it had been "a sad night for Scotland", and then, three days later in his BBC interview with Sir David Frost, that the Scots had had the "wool pulled over their eyes", is just crass. Hague's grudging and patronising remarks may have been hedged by a promise to "respect" the referendum result, but they were still a breach of the excellent working principle in democratic politics, that the customer is always right. Here, after all, is the best possible opportunity the Scottish Tories have to rebuild their crumbling base. The very least he should have said is: "We fought a fair fight but we lost. The Scottish people have expressed their will in the clearest possible terms. We now have the exciting task of playing as full a part as possible in making the new parliament work in the interests of Scotland."

This example illustrates a wider question: how fully has Hague grasped the scale of the defeat? He boasted in his weekend interview that the party had never been as united as at present. This will prove a hollow boast, as he must know, if the pace quickens on Europe. It is increasingly possible that the 1999 European elections - during which Hague will need to improve the Tories' showing - will be fought on the issue of EMU. Eager to maintain his influence within Europe, without joining EMU in the first wave, Blair may well announce that he intends to join as soon as possible thereafter. He could even call a referendum at the same time as the European elections. Some Tory heavyweights, including Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, a clutch of MEPs and quite a few on the front bench, will back the Government - along with many business leaders.

But the more immediate point is that the Tories have never less needed unity than now. Indeed, a spate of real controversy within the party might help him, as the Clause IV debate helped Blair. The present Albanian-style plebiscite both on his own leadership and his plans for some centralising reforms of party organisation has provoked some grass-roots grumbling. It will go through - but the most catastrophic mistake the Tory party could now make is to assume that its problems in the 1997 election were primarily organisational. One complaint against Hague from quite senior ranks in the party is that he seems much more comfortable on the topic of organisation - on which he has at hand the professional skills of the Asda chairman Archie Norman - than on the overall direction of the party's thinking. He is right, of course, to believe that the last thing the Tories need now is a raft of detailed policies. Opposition, especially long-haul, two-term opposition, isn't about that. But he will never have a better opportunity than now to trigger a debate about ideas within the party. Should Conservatism opt for an English parliament? Should it go greener than Labour? Should it advocate compulsory arbitration on pay in the public services? Is it sensible for the Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard to pursue his quaint notion that the next election will be fought on a platform of EU renegotiation, under the threat of withdrawal? At the moment the party seems perversely stuck to its pre-election positions. Clarke, who was said to be too much of an old-stager, still looks the more modern politician.

Hague should not panic. But he should listen to a much wider circle than that of his belligerent lieutenant Alan Duncan about when to pick fights with the Government and when not to. He will also need to face up to a mid-term purge of some of the retreads from the previous government. The summer has made it much more probable that both Michael Portillo and Chris Patten will return to British politics. Patten is being heavily pressed to come back by some senior figures on the Tory centre left. (One of them, John Major, recently spent some time with Patten on holiday at Tristan Garel-Jones's house in Spain.) But Patten is still hesitating, not least, it is said, because of uncertainty over how to oppose free-market, one- nation Blairism. Hague said on Sunday that he would welcome both with "open arms". But he needs to put a much more convincing stamp on the party at next month's conference, if he is not to risk being overshadowed by the best of his own colleagues.