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Leading article: Tory split is a threat to us all

WILLIAM HAGUE has many of the qualities required of a promising leader. He is clever, and his mind is clear. He has considerable charm and openness. On ethnic, social and sexual issues, he is free from bigotry. Mr Hague is probably the most natural platform speaker to lead his party since Harold Macmillan. His problem is that he does not appear to understand the gravity of the crisis confronting Conservatism. There are eerie parallels between the turmoil in the Tory party and the split in the Labour Party following its 1979 election defeat. And the weakness of Labour's opposition during the Thatcher years did no favours for democracy in Britain.

It may seem odd to compare William Hague with Michael Foot. But he was chosen as party leader by much the same kind of reasoning. Labour rejected Denis Healey, who had a proven appeal to the electorate in favour of a man who went with the grain of parliamentary and activist opinion. The Tories rejected Kenneth Clarke, who also appealed to the electorate, in favour of a man who promised to unite a divided party. In each case the outcome has been the opposite to that intended. Michael Foot's leadership helped to persuade some of Labour's most capable ex-ministers to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. Now William Hague's leadership is propelling some of the Tories' most respected politicians into internal opposition. Mr David Curry yesterday followed Mr Ian Taylor's departure from the front bench by becoming the first Shadow Cabinet minister to resign and join the internal opposition. This forms a potent force within the party, and could even become a separate party. Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Lord Howe, and Douglas Hurd are no less determined to promote a positive policy on Europe - with British membership of EMU at the heart of it - than Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen were to oppose old Labour. All prefer to cleave to their own convictions rather than bow to the prevailing fashion.

Labour's schism was about several issues: defence, Europe, internal party democracy. The Tory split is almost exclusively about Europe, but the dynamic is similar. The policies which most appeal to the ideological activists are those which least appeal to floating voters. Since 237 Conservative candidates declared opposition to the single currency, the party would not have suffered its worst defeat this century if anti- Europeanism was a vote-winner. The Tories are, however, in even greater peril than Labour was. There is a danger of a breach in their historic alliance with business and industry. While not all businesses support the single currency, many of the nation's greatest companies do, as does much of the City. Moreover, if Mr Hague's party makes its ideological home in a nationalist bunker, the party's few really big hitters will be tempted to move house. Who will be like Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley, whose rejection of the SDP helped to keep the Labour Party together in its darkest hour? Apart from Margaret Thatcher, the only charismatic figure in the Tory party who might act as a counterweight to the Clarkes and Heseltines in a referendum campaign is Michael Portillo. He has yet to find a seat.

We suspect the Tory party will accept British membership of EMU, rather as Labour now accepts trade union reform. Originally, Labour preferred to listen to the barons of the trade union movement rather than rank- and-file members, and a terrible price was paid for that because it helps to explain why Labour went down to defeat at the hands of the Tories in three elections. By preferring a doctrinaire refusal to advance Britain's economic interests in Europe to a pragmatic approach to a developing single currency, the Tory party is threatened by a similar fate. It can be argued that this is the destiny of the Conservative Party, something over which non-party members have no control. But a collapsed Tory party does have disturbing implications. So far the evidence is thin, but it does look as if Labour's legion of backbenchers is being whipped into line by the party's minders with quite remarkable efficiency. Apart from old familiars like Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, not a peep is to be had out of them, and only an optimist would expect those rows of plain backbenchers to speak out against wrongs they may identify in Mr Blair's performance or to fight for policies the Government opposes. If they don't and the Tories can't, what suffers is the quality of parliamentary democracy.