I left them to it - it's wicked to mock the afflicted

Click to follow
ANYONE attending a Conservative conference these days is rather like a curious citizen of 18th-century London gawping at the lunatics in the Bedlam asylum. After two days of the spectacle I found I could stand no more. As the late Frankie Howerd used to say: "It's wicked to mock the afflicted." Accordingly I took myself off early to watch Mr William Hague's speech on television from the comfort of my study in leafy Islington, which to both the Tory party and the Daily Mail seems to be the equivalent of Sodom, or maybe Gomorrah - though that does not prevent the editor of the paper in question from resting his head there of a night, just round the corner from me in fact.

The form which the party's madness takes is obsession with a single subject, Europe. Several persuasive comparisons have been drawn with similar crazed periods in the history of the parties, particularly the Labour Party. The most popular period for comparisons is 1979-83, when first Lord Callaghan and then Mr Michael Foot were submerged by Mr Tony Benn.

The party was then not only unilaterist but also in favour of our withdrawal from Europe. This is what many leading Conservatives of today would like to see, though they are not prepared to say so. But the most important changes of that time were constitutional, in the party sense. They were not to be reversed until 1993, and not completely even then.

The comparison with Labour at the high tide of Bennery is perfectly valid. But it may also be instructive to look at the People's Party in 1958-61. Then, as with the Tories now, there was one issue, the bomb. Hugh Gaitskell (it is often forgotten) compromised before the 1959 election by supporting our membership of the "non-nuclear club". After the Conservatives had won that election with a majority of 100, the fight continued with renewed malice and uncharitableness.

But the politicians who were conducting these disputes not only lacked any real knowledge of the weapons about which they were being so eloquent. More: whatever policy they might arrive at, there was not the slightest chance of their being asked to carry it out, for the elementary but overlooked reason that they were not in government. Others were in that happy position. The prime minister was Harold Macmillan. Indeed, in his diaries he expressed surprise that, in a Commons debate, the opposition had argued with one another instead of attacking the government's several failures over defence.

As with Labour then, so with the Conservatives now. There is nothing they can do about Europe or our entry into the single currency. If Mr Tony Blair were running a minority government or even one with a tiny majority, the case for a firm Conservative position would be stronger. But Mr Blair has a majority of 179. The boys and girls will support him in whatever he decides to do or not to do.

In one of his proficient television commentaries during the week Mr Kenneth Clarke suggested that Mr Blair would hold a referendum on the single currency when Mr Rupert Murdoch gave him permission to hold it. If that is so, Mr Hague will be in the Sunset Home for Politicians - the House of Lords - before it takes place; while Mr Michael Heseltine, maybe Mr Clarke as well, will have gone to meet the Prime Minister in the Sky.

The new platform arrangement, with the comfortable chairs for assorted luminaries, did not present at all a happy spectacle. Both Lady Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath looked as if they were in the departure lounge of Life Airport, uneasily awaiting the aeroplane that would take them to a distant and unknown destination.

But the row inside the Conservative Party is not really about the single currency at all. If it were, the party could have united without any fuss or trouble behind Mr John Major's policy of wait-and-see - which is essentially Mr Blair's and Mr Gordon Brown's policy as well. Mr Hague first modified it to exclude entry for the "foreseeable future". Then he changed again to make the period of exclusion the duration of this Parliament and the next, a possible nine years.

This was not sensible politics. It was even less sensible to hold a party ballot which he knew he would win and then to announce the result at the beginning of the conference in the vain expectation that everyone would say "well, that's settled then" and go off to talk about other matters entirely. On the contrary - as I could have told Mr Hague had he asked me - the ballot turned the single currency into the topic of the week and guaranteed extensive coverage for the sayings of Mr Clarke, Mr Heseltine and, inevitably, Mr Michael Portillo. Mr Hague has chosen to have a fight with the first two, who are not only the most popular Conservatives with the voters but virtually the only ones they can recognise at all. When Mr Blair had his fight, which was really a walkover, about Clause IV, he took the precaution of ensuring that his opponents were both unpopular and unknown.

Mr Clarke was his usual relaxed self, not all passion spent exactly - for he has always traded in sense rather than in passion. But he was quite happy with a pint, an inexpensive cigar and numerous appearances before our admiring eyes on the television screen. Mr Heseltine was, by contrast, a man possessed, no longer the mangy old circus lion, but a great, savage beast, roaring away like anything and tossing his mane as if Mr Hague were a troublesome fly. Mr Clarke still has a chance - slim, but a chance - of leading his party. Mr Heseltine can now speak more freely because he has none, not least because Mrs Heseltine would not allow him to take it.

In May 1997 the natural contest would have been between Mr Heseltine and Mr Portillo. But the latter lost his seat; while the former suffered a recurrence of heart trouble almost immediately after the election. If this had not happened he would, in Mr Portillo's absence, almost certainly have been elected unopposed. Last week he said there were certain people (carefully left uncertain by Mr Heseltine) who were using Europe as a device to dislodge Mr Hague and replace him with Mr Portillo.

I do not accuse the controllers of Channel 4 of being party to any such plot. It was none the less odd behaviour to give Mr Portillo what was in effect a multi-part self-promotional film on the eve of the Tory conference. One scene appears to have stuck in the public mind: Mr Portillo with Mr Hague on the Yorkshire moors, where the former is held to have cut a more impressive figure by far.

But Mr Hague, through his ostensibly democratic reforms, has made it more difficult to get rid of him. The leader must now be dislodged by a majority of MPs. In the ensuing election the new leader is elected by all the party's members, who have always been loyal to the sitting tenant. My guess is that Mr Hague will still be with us at the next election. If the Labour Government has its traditional financial crisis - it may already be having one - Mr Hague could perform respectably.

"Trust the people," said Mr David ("Two Brains") Willetts, citing Disraeli as his source. Actually it was Lord Randolph Churchill. No matter. The people can get up to all sorts of tricks. Before 1970 few observers thought poor Ted Heath could ever win against Harold Wilson, the Tony Blair of his age.