Life is nasty, as Tebbit reminds us

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The Independent Online
I WAS interested in the Tory tributes to John Smith. I seem to remember a period not so long ago (last week, for instance) when, if any interviewer seemed about to corner a Tory politician and extract some embarrassing admission, the politician would begin jabbering - jabbering in the way people do in order to blot out some awful thought that's just occurred to them.

The content of this jabbering was surprisingly repetitive, given the variety of cirumstances in which it was resorted to. Labour was in despair over Smith, we were told. There was no leadership. There were no policies. Time after time (and this was the bit which always sounded scripted), time after time John Major outmanoeuvred Smith during Prime Minister's Questions.

I heard this so often I even half believed it, although I had never, as it happened, witnessed one of these alleged bestings. Or wait a minute, maybe I had. When Major called Smith 'Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels', maybe that was the kind of 'outmanoeuvring' the Tories are always referring to.

It turns out that the script for the European election campaign (as formulated by the Conservative Research Department's Campaign Guide 1994) had been due to include yet more attacks on Smith's question-time capabilities, his leadership of his party, his lacklustre performance.

But then, to their immense surprise, the Tories found themselves making all these heartfelt tributes to Smith's formidable political mind, his virtues as a parliamentarian and so forth.

The tributes were such as almost to imply that the things Smith stood for (like decency) were good in themselves. One was left with the conundrum: are the Tories hypocritical in their tributes to the dead Smith, or were they deceitful in their estimate of the living?

One member of the shadow cabinet was quoted in yesterday's papers as saying that he or she thought, during Major's Commons tribute, 'What a bloody hypocrite. There is a side of Mr Major that shows a nice face, but only when he's not up against it. When his back is to the wall, there is nobody more nasty, more vicious and contemptible. I had the sneaking feeling last Thursday that he was trying to say that John Smith was such a great man that without him Labour is finished.'

That would have been a devious piece of opportunism, but I wonder whether it was so. It seemed to me that Major, shocked at what had happened to Smith, had gone and let the cat out of the bag. He respected Smith and considered him an opponent rather than an enemy.

That concerted campaign by the Tories to insist that Smith was a weak leader and no match for Major was just so much blather, something to jabber through interviews. Now the man was dead, the nonsense had lost its place and purpose.

And as the nonsense died down, and people behaved in a statesmanlike fashion for a while, there came a feeling: couldn't things be like this always? Couldn't politicians treat each other with respect, and remove the personal, vicious element from debate?

To which the answer soon came: no.

People were heard asking strange yearning questions such as: could Smith's death change things, could it bring about some renewal or improvement in our political discourse? And the answer again was: no.

This asking of oneself, 'How can we make sure that John Smith didn't die in vain?' is natural in a moment of shock and grief, but it doesn't mean anything. Seek to make sure that he didn't live in vain, by all means. But this dying is neither in vain nor to a purpose. It's just dying.

It fell to Lord Tebbit to bring an early end to this brief truce. And he did so with a remark yesterday to the effect that Smith hadn't been a very good politician anyway and that he had made plenty of mistakes. And no doubt before the funeral there will be other people prepared to return political discourse to its more normal mode.

Nor is it at all likely - or desirable, in my view - that Labour Party internal politics can remain frozen or somehow left on hold until the June election, let alone till the party conference, as some party workers were suggesting yesterday. People will want to know what is going on, and the front-runners will be electioneering in both senses (over Europe and over their own futures) whatever happens. How could it be otherwise?

A certain form may be observed in these matters, but the reality will win out, by being of supreme and legitimate interest to all parties, not least the electorate.

It is a matter of distinct interest to any voter to know whether the party will eventually fall into the hands of, say, John Prescott, and it is unrealistic to say to voters: don't consider that question yet; close your eyes and think of Europe; imagine that the party is still led by John Smith.

A desire for unity and a display of self-discipline is one thing. But a desire to wish away debate or to achieve some kind of resolution without confronting the problem is quite another. The fantasy is not to be encouraged whereby the party has a leadership election without the attendant campaign.

It does not follow, for instance, that the leading opinion poll position enjoyed by Tony Blair makes him the right candidate for the job. It's not the electorate's job to choose the party leader. This is not to say anything against Tony Blair, but simply to state what is fundamental. The party chooses. The opinion polls are only one of many considerations.

It's a question of the difference between having a reasonably harmonious but living party, and having an inanimate one, a rubber stamp at the service of the pollsters. A feat of standing absolutely still and holding its breath for the next couple of years would not, of itself, win Labour the next election.

It seemed to me wrong of Bryan Gould to stand against John Smith last time, because the decision to do so appeared to come from a kind of vanity and a vain idea of his own prospects. But it was not wrong in principle, only in that particular case.

Any Labour supporter would have been justified in fearing the electoral consequences of the untimely death of John Smith. But since that death has occurred, the opportunity to choose a new leader in a new way should be welcomed, with all its opportunities for debate and choice, and all its attendant uncertainties. It is after all a very important part of the legacy he left to the party that the new procedure is there. It should be used with pleasure.