Leading article: A harsh truth for Hague

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The Independent Online
LOOKING at the Prime Minister's unprecedented personal popularity - as measured in all the opinion polls - one might well believe that the United Kingdom has voluntarily transformed itself into a one-party New Labour state. If there is any opposition at all, a study of the newspapers suggests that it has gone into hibernation. Most of the shadow cabinet have found the transition from government to opposition embarrassingly difficult. Too many of the yesterday's men who sprawl on the front bench have no saving graces as parliamentarians. They know who they are. They should be like Stephen Dorrell and volunteer to spend more time with their political philosophies. If not, we shall discover whether Mr William Hague is a good butcher. (We ought, incidentally, to exempt him from the charge of parliamentary incompetence. Mr Hague has often got the better of Mr Blair in their exchanges in the Commons.)

It is, however, an historical fact that a generally feeble display in the Commons is not such a great problem. All of the Conservatives' periods in opposition since the war have been accompanied by lame parliamentary performances, especially in the first years of a parliament. After the landslide defeat of 1945, Winston Churchill spent more time accumulating substantial royalties from the sales of his memoirs than attacking Clement Attlee's radical administration. Edward Heath was never a match for Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Margaret Thatcher and her team made little headway even against the accident-prone Labour administration of the late 1970s. Yet each of these Conservative oppositions went on to regain power surprisingly quickly. And the most powerful weapon each of them had was policy. Michael Heseltine once described the Conservative Party as the most successful political machine in the history of democratic politics. This is not a boast much bruited these days, but Tories should reflect on the reason for their resilience and on the methods they deployed to fight their way back from the wilderness. In the 1940s, there was a revolutionary overhaul of the party's machinery and policies by gifted researchers like Enoch Powell, Reginald Maudling and Iain Macleod. In the 1970s the Centre for Policy Studies took the lead. Some of the clearest statements of Conservatism have been made in opposition, such as the "Charters" of the late 1940s and The Right Approach in 1976. Of course this does beg the question about the content of today's equivalent. We suspect that the party should head for the centre with a version of Disraelian populism. Public opinion is unlikely to move to the right as it did in the 1970s and 1980s. There is evidence that Mr Hague understands this. At Prime Minister's Questions last week he used his time to attack the Government on health service waiting lists. He has relaxed his hostility to some constitutional reforms. He deserves some respect for clarifying the position on Europe, although that position is still wrong, and will serve the Tories badly. But there is a terrible shortage of fresh, vote-catching policies.

That's Her Majesty's official opposition. What about the constructive opposition, as the Liberal Democrats like to refer to themselves? Paddy Ashdown has recognised the magnitude of what happened a year ago and the Government's continuing popularity. He has been playing the "candid friend". His attacks are still tempered by his belief that this is a modernising government with an agenda of reform which he has an interest in seeing implemented, not least because much of it closely resembles his own party's manifesto. By far the most significant event in this over the last year was the establishment of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform. This has a remit that gives it a clear steer towards proportional representation. If the recommendation of this commission, which will come later this year, promises PR, and the Government responds positively, then Mr Blair will be offering Mr Ashdown the key that unlocks the door (his phrase) to closer co-operation. With a prize like that, the emphasis would be less on the "opposition" and a lot more on the "constructive". For Mr Hague the consequences of this reform could be scarcely less serious. They could keep the Conservatives out for a generation.

Mr Ashdown and Mr Hague both find opposition as frustrating as Mr Blair did. The evidence of Labour's first year suggests that being leader of the "constructive opposition" rather than the official opposition offers the quicker path to power.