Leading Article: Grow up, Mr Hague

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WHAT IS the mental age of the Shadow Cabinet? William Hague and his gang of cheeky lads seem to think that the art of politics is about pulling clever tricks. As with Richmal Crompton's schoolboy scoundrels, the joke usually rebounds on just William rather than his intended victim. The stunt last week was to get Mr Blair to say "actually" as often as possible during Prime Minister's Question Time, so Tory backbenchers could giggle at him and generally lark about. The Daily Telegraph went into ecstasy, which shows what sort of triumph it was for the New Tory Yah- boo-sucks Tendency. Is this serious opposition?

Small wonder, then, that one of the party's more promising frontbenchers, Shaun Woodward, yesterday announced that he is to cross the floor to join New Labour. This is about as grave a defection as Mr Hague could face. True, it does not have the explosive quality of an act of apostasy by, say, Michael Heseltine or Kenneth Clarke. Yet in its way it is more significant. For they might be dismissed as representatives of the past. But Mr Woodward was the very embodiment of what the Conservatives need to do if they are to change sufficiently and win back the political allegiance of a nation already very different from the one over which Margaret Thatcher, or even John Major, ruled. Mr Woodward, a former director of communications for the Tories - and the man responsible for the Labour tax bombshell campaign which won Mr Major the 1992 general election - is bright, personable and in touch with contemporary social mores, as his stance against Tory homophobia last month showed. He understands that there is more to making the Tories electable than cropped hair, baseball caps and Despatch Box japes.

It is notable that the biggest Tory wizard wheeze to backfire recently was the one to show up Mr Blair as a control freak over the London mayoral elections. While Labour tried to exclude Ken Livingstone from the race by Downing Street diktat, the sincere democrats of Conservative Central Office were prepared to let "the people" - or those of them still Tory - chose anyone they liked. They duly liked Jeffrey Archer, showing that what London Tories really needed was a bit more New Labour-type control- freakery, not less. Even if it worked, it was far too subtle a ploy to win them even a tenth of a point in the opinion polls, which was its only conceivable justification. As the lunatics took over the asylum, there was first the fiasco as Lord Archer fell into a dung-heap, and then the Whitehall farce over the bedroom sportsman Steven Norris and someone's jealous mother-in-law. Crikey, you might say.

Then Matthew Parris, Tory columnist, wit and TV pundit, sniffs the air and declares it is time for the Liberal Democrats to go home and prepare for opposition. Official Opposition, that is - the curious slot in the constitution occupied by the second largest party in the Commons. He has read the Tory tea-leaves and declared his old party more or less a cold Christmas turkey. It seems he speaks for many. The Lib Dems have a new leader, the clever and amusing Charles Kennedy, and thanks to the mess the Tories are in, a real opportunity to change the face of British politics.

It is hard to disagree: for Parris to be proved wrong, Mr Hague has to pull out of the Tory opinion poll nosedive by more or less clipping the treetops. He sure isn't Biggles, and so far hasn't even located the joystick. But all is not well with Labour either. As if on cue, Islington promptly fell to the Liberal Democrats last week as the result of Labour losing a by-election. Islington, in the mythology of New Labour, is the Downing Street waiting- room where the New Labour cool cats, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and numerous lesser fry, ate their sun-dried tomatoes while plotting for May Day 97. In the real world, of course, Islington is - or was until Thursday - just one more dysfunctional Labour council. But Islington could yet prove to be Mr Blair's Orpington. And Mr Kennedy's job is to make it so.

The New Labour project is about as ephemeral as the Millennium Dome - spectacular, but not built to last. The real project of reorganising the left in British politics has yet to be accomplished. And that is where Mr Kennedy's tactics become crucial. He is the real Lib Dem stuff, in a way Mr Blair is not real Labour. Mr Kennedy has three choices. He could renew his predecessor's flirtation with Labour, hoping to revive Mr Blair's ambition to realign the left to exclude Tories from power for the foreseeable future. That means a permanent Lib-Lab pact and proportional representation, which looks less likely all the time. He could make a pitch for Middle England, offering disgruntled Tories some real opposition to the Government but from the right (perhaps after a bit of verbal conjuring to show that terms like left and right don't apply any more.) Or he could attempt to storm Labour's natural territory, expanding on his inner-city beachhead in places like Islington.

This is where the real Lib Dem opportunity lies. These places really are up for grabs. Foundations can be laid now in local government that will bring political dividends for a generation or more. Municipal socialism no longer gets its kicks from the 1980s unholy alliance between public- sector unions and the semi-Trots of the Broad Left - "public-private financing" is hardly a cause to die for. The passion has gone out of Labour, locally and nationally, leaving a party of disgruntled idealists, ambitious careerists and unattractive yes-men. The passion has certainly gone from the Tories, except over Europe - where runaway nationalistic passion is far more dangerous to Mr Hague's position than to Mr Blair's. True passion for social justice at the grass-roots of British democracy is what Mr Kennedy can supply. He should hoist his flags and go for it.

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