Leading Article: Hague's big challenge - unity and, er, ideas

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The Independent Online
The case for William Hague was easier to set out at the start of the Conservative leadership election than at the end of it. Although this newspaper's sympathies leant towards Kenneth Clarke, it was possible to give Mr Hague the benefit of the doubt. There was an uncertainty in his manner and a nagging question of what he stood for, but it could be imagined that these would be overcome as he grew in confidence. He seemed intelligent, relatively open-minded and, above all, he appeared to recognise the scale of the challenge presented by New Labour. It was Mr Hague who wrote an article in the Spectator which would not have looked out of place in the New Statesman under a Tony Blair byline, circa 1994. Mr Hague's youth alone cast him more convincingly than Mr Clarke as the man to modernise the Tory party.

That, then, was the case for Mr Hague some weeks ago. But he did not have a smooth leadership campaign. The election tested him and found out some of his weaknesses. His spatchcocked deal with Michael Howard at the start could have been passed off either as evidence of an attractive modesty or as an impressively subtle feint. But then a series of mistakes, particularly in his handling of the European issue - the only policy issue of the campaign - betrayed an uncertain pair of hands and conveyed a muddled message. The Thatcher endorsement was a disaster. This staged event was deemed necessary by the public relations advisers as a response to the Clarke- Redwood "instability pact", but the judgement was faulty. To have the candidate of the "fresh start" endorsed by the Undead Baroness, still keening for a seven-year-old betrayal unavenged, made no sense. It means Mr Hague's leadership is in hock to the past, because Lady Thatcher and her dwindling band of torch-carriers will always be able to claim that it was she who pushed him over the finishing line. He managed to start as the unity candidate and ended as the candidate of division, with nearly half of his colleagues feeling excluded.

In spite of the unexpectedly large margin of Mr Hague's victory, the outcome does not seem decisive. Mr Hague has not yet won the confidence of the party in the country (let alone that of the wider electorate). He will be overshadowed in the Commons by the sulking beasts of the backbenches, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. And the only force that will keep many Tory MPs in the party at all will be the prospect of another leadership election on a different franchise. Paradoxically, it was John Redwood who declared (before his Faustian pact with Mr Clarke): "The only way to end the Conservative civil war is to settle which side has won." Well, Euroscepticism has won, but it will not end the civil war. Most likely there will be another leadership election, in which party members will probably have a say on the basis of one member, one vote, like the Labour Party. That election may not resolve anything unless other strong candidates have come into Parliament in the meantime - Portillo, perhaps, or Patten?

Yesterday's vote told us little about how the party will deal with the historic defeat it suffered on 1 May. Will it respond, as Labour did in 1979, when it suffered a much lesser defeat, by intensifying its internal struggle? Or will it copy Labour's response to the catastrophic defeat of 1983, which saw the start of a 14-year Long March back to connecting with the people. Yesterday, it was as if Tory MPs saw the dangers of voting for the equivalent of a joint ticket of Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn. But they voted for an unknown quantity instead.

The challenge facing the Tory party is to modernise its ideology and organisation. It needs a revolution if anything more dramatic than that achieved by Mr Blair with the Labour Party if it is to have any chance of competing on equal terms at the next election. Mr Hague will no doubt make a quick start on establishing central control of presentation and candidate selection. He may even be able to build some bridges to the One Nation wing of the party - a tougher task, that. But there is a big hole where the ideas should be that will reconnect the party with the voters.

Of course, the question of the Tory party's future seems distantly irrelevant in the face of a dynamic new Labour government which has much to do and 10 or 15 years in which to do it. But strength of opposition matters to democracy. This is not a pious argument dreamt up to justify coverage of the Tory drama. For now, of course, Mr Blair can do no wrong (although we have our doubts about the Millennium Dome) and the main role for the Tory party is to provide an entertaining sideshow. But there will come a time when New Labour's authoritarian streak will demand to be challenged.

This newspaper argued that Mr Clarke would be better placed not just to stand up to Mr Blair but to rebuild the party as a broad-based political force. Above all, our argument rested on the assumption that, if the Tory party drives itself into an isolationist position on the European question, it will split and put itself out of range of the real concerns of British politics for a long time.

The real issues that face politicians in the next decade are those of preserving social cohesion in the face of global economic pressures, technological change and environmental degradation. The Labour government has placed itself across the full breadth of voters' concerns on these issues, while the Conservatives have next to nothing to say. Mr Hague has probably about a year in which to establish his authority, by developing a convincing plot for the party's recovery. He started on a good note last night, with a generous appeal for inclusive politics within his party. Wish him well, for the sake of a healthy democracy - but wait and see before deciding whether he can pull it off.