Leading Article: Sitting tight does not win elections, Mr Hague. It is time to be radical

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The Independent Online
What should William Hague and his friends do now? Though the odd blows have been landed on New Labour since May, they have been glancing cuffs at best. Few Tory frontbenchers have any public profile at all - this must be the most shadowy Shadow Cabinet in modern times. There is barely a glimpse of an alternative new Conservative agenda that can't be trumped by Tony Blair. And now the Tory left has rubbished Mr Hague's one resonant point of difference, his hostile agnosticism about the euro.

The easy answer for the Leader of the Opposition is: do nothing. There are more than four years until the next election. Why rush to create policies now that are likely to be outdated by the time they are put to voters? All that is needed, say some Tory strategists, is that special form of political courage that allows one to sit tight. Everything has its season.

It is a beguiling idea. It sounds impressively self-confident, even wise. But it is also profoundly mistaken. Politics is not all about elections; it is mostly what happens between elections, how the issues, forces and caricatures are shaped which then determine the election. Lack of seriousness now (which is what a policy of masterly inactivity really amounts to) will count against the Tories later. They will find that there is a resonant anti-Blair movement - but they are not leading it. Or they will find that their years of mumbling simply leave them further behind Blair when the next contest comes.

So, once more, what should they do? The main thing is to try to imagine what sort of party might be wanted by the British by 2002, and start creating it now. One senior American politician, who visited this country recently, surprised some of the Shadow Cabinet by advocating a kind of patriotic futurology, even at the expense of daily anti-Blair campaigning.

In that process of imagining, a few constants will help. People, or at least potentially Tory-voting people, never feel under-taxed. Even if Labour holds income tax rates roughly where they are now, voters will be chafing under the weight of new ``privatised taxes'', such as higher insurance and pension charges. How will the Tories exploit this? What can they offer to cut instead?

Similarly, the traditional British suspicion of central authority and bossiness will be as strong shortly after the millennium as it is a couple of years before it. Under Blair, the gathering of all political power in Downing Street, and a distinctsocial bossiness offers thinking Tories some interesting ammunition.

To fire it, however, they'd have to ditch some old baggage. They would have to accept Scottish and Welsh devolution and Lords reform, and return to a passionate enthusiasm for local government, before they could credibly oppose Labour on constitutional matters - sticking up for the rights of Parliament as against the executive, for instance. They would also have to take a rather more open and less hidebound approach to social values, In that, the famous semi-recantation of Michael Portillo a couple of months ago should be their set text.

Then there is Europe. A lower-tax, mildly libertarian and anti-centralist New Toryism might appeal to many voters. But if the party has set itself against a policy - monetary union - which by then most voters, and a majority of business, regard as good for jobs and incomes, the Conservatives would still be sunk. The Tories are the pragmatic party, or they are nothing.

Many would argue, of course, that monetary union will be ruinous. But our view is that, in any case, the combined power of the City, business leaders and a swathe of senior politicians of all parties will win the argument for EMU in the short term. So it would be bonkers of the Tory leadership to bind itself under all circumstances to the losing side.

What they could be doing is arguing for a much less bureaucratic, and more politically open EU, with less power for Strasbourg and the Commission. That may not be practical politics in 1998, but it will be tremendously popular in the country in the years ahead. There are other ideas for the Tories to tackle, including a radical rethinking of the cost structure and delivery of higher education in the wired-up world; new ways of paying for the privilege of green countryside in a crowded island; and cheaper defence options.

But, whatever policies are finally at the core of a reshaped Tory party, now is the time to start talking about them. We are into the ninth month since the election defeat and still the most vocal Conservatives are the old stagers of the Thatcher generation. One of the few gifts of Opposition is the freedom to think and speak imaginatively and radically. It is time for a ferment of new Tory thinking - the bad ideas will have been forgotten by 2002 and the good ones need to be tested. Until that happens, Mr Hague and his colleagues are going to continue 1998 as unhappily as they have begun it.