Leading article: Hague vs the Powellites: Why blood must be spilt at Blackpool

Click to follow
The Independent Online
An odd vehicle is likely to be on display on Blackpool's wet promenade this week, one unlikely to move very far: a cart before a horse. The cart will be presented in full management consultants' fig, trimmed by the chairman of Asda. Yet it's a cart with a broken axle. Already the Tory leader has made too many concessions to parliamentary panjandrums and peers, and flinched at making the Conservatives a democratic party in which members have a proper voting role. But that is all mechanics and procedures and presentation. They have to come after the horse. The missing animal is William Hague's version of the party's soul: what it believes in, what it's for, what it's against.

Figuratively speaking, he stood there yesterday on the steps of the Imperial Hotel, arms outstretched like the Statue of Liberty, saying: bring me your blacks and gays and practitioners of premarital sex, for I want this party to be representative of modern Britain. But does he have the guts to follow through, and accost, all guns blazing, Tory racists, homophobes and moralisers?

Norman Tebbit knows what his Tory party is against. There he was, at the weekend, telling us firmly that Toryism amounts to nationalism, the ugly sort that despises Johnny Foreigner and rather wishes, without ever quite mustering the courage to utter the word repatriation, that this England could be rid of black people, brown people, non-English speakers, people who dare to cheer the Pakistani or West Indian cricket teams. Mr Hague responds, but weakly, even though the ex-chairman is patently having a go at his forlorn appearance at the Notting Hill carnival.

If William Hague is going to succeed in leading this party he has to round on the latter-day Powellites, hound them with the vigour and determination with which Labour in the later 1980s turfed out its Trotskyites.

Tory strategists make free with analogies from Labour's recent history, often drawing the false conclusion that all you need is presentation and an electoral machine as proficient as Labour's Millbank operation. But they forget - as Tony Blair to his great credit did not forget last week - that Labour's machine could only be built after a great ideological reworking had been done, notably by Neil Kinnock. Labour has, to put it simply, junked socialism, and in so doing pained, wounded, even killed some of its support.

William Hague has no such great project. Yet what he has to do is more difficult. Under Margaret Thatcher the Tories were, albeit intermittently, a radical party, disruptive of the institutional and social status quo. They were not conservatives at all. Are they now? Where exactly does William Hague stand on that ancient division between conservatism and liberalism, between reaction and reform?

We have, says Mr Hague, to be honest with each other about the changes we have to make. That surely must mean argument, heated dispute over visions and values. Is William Hague's to be a party of reactionaries, unable to contemplate any change in the corrupted architecture of the British state? Or a party of pragmatists who may actually welcome practical and modest reform?

If they care at all, the public probably wish Mr Hague well as a new boy with a hard job. They are uninterested in his flow charts or revised scripts for Central Office. What they want is a sense of where this historic party now fits. Is it the party, still, of anxious little Englanders, or one which welcomes both the global facts of economic life, and sees government as a means of ameliorating their domestic effects?

There is a valid Tory position on Europe which appraises the next steps very cautiously, yet does not slip into brutal anti-foreign fear as expressed by Messrs Howard and Portillo. But to adopt it, William Hague will have to challenge and harry some of his closest colleagues.

If he is capable of leadership, then he has to be capable of that kind of tough-mindedness. He keeps telling us he is unafraid, but in the same breath make the fatuous claim that his party is united; that, for example, there are no splits on Europe.

Political conferences do not have to be gladiatorial to be worth attending to. But here is our firm prediction for the Tories at this stage in their history: unless the conference floor in Blackpool sees some blood split this week - preferably that of the Tory no-nothings and reactionaries skewered on Mr Hague's lance - his prospects of winning general elections, let alone surviving as leader will diminish even further.