Leading Article: Grow up, Mr Hague

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little