The old order is crumbling

With Douglas Hurd's exit, the Tory party loses a visionary and a great force for stability at its heart
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The Independent Online
By standing in the sun and saying goodbye, Douglas Hurd meant to help John Major fight on. None of us, though, can be sure of the consequences of our actions, not even Foreign Secretaries. And already it seems that one effect of the Hurd announcement has been to increase the uneasy sensation among loyal Tories that Major's great gamble may go horribly wrong.

It's a feeling - nothing more. But it comes because they see that the old cabinet is breaking up and with it slips away further authority. The loss of Hurd leaves the Chancellor terribly isolated as the last aggressive pro-European. He and Major are not as close as they were. Thus the troika once at the heart of Cabinet has disintegrated.

Michael Heseltine mutters about voting for Major and grins wolfishly as he jumps into cars. Lesser-known figures confront the cameras on the Prime Minister's behalf and don't sound quite as gung-ho as they might. There is something about their tone, their body language.

Major himself seems to have deliberately narrowed the range of people speaking for him by excluding the leading anti-Brussels Cabinet Ministers from his original decision to resign the leadership. Michael Portillo seemed politely incredulous about that decision yesterday. John Redwood is behaving oddly. Thus the impression is not of the rallying-round of the big players against a few laughably insignificant players, which is what we had expected. It is, just a little, of scattering and confusion.

There is little doubt that Mr Hurd's decision has contributed to this loss of Cabinet authority. He announced his resignation now to give John Major the prospect of a big, quick reshuffle, and the patronage-power that goes with it. It was the honourable exit he had been looking for - one which he hoped might strengthen, not weaken, his leader.

But having a hole at the Foreign Office may not help Major over the next fortnight. Those on the right who had not already decided they want him out, will merely add the appointment of Hurd's successor to their ideological shopping list. So how does Major respond? If he appoints a right-wing Euro-sceptic, he will be mocked for kow-towing to his enemies. If it's anyone else, he'll provoke them. If he says nothing, even privately, they'll assume the job is going to a slippery pro-European.

This dilemma points to Michael Howard getting the job, as a right-wing Major loyalist - one of the very few. Foreign Office people splutter at the idea. They wonder whether Howard would try the same kind of crude populism on Europe that he's tried on crime. Not a pretty prospect. But whoever gets Hurd's job will be by definition less experienced, less energetic and - again by definition - cruder, too.

The loss to government of Mr Hurd's natural authority and experience is not something lightly traded in return for an easier time between the Prime Minister and, say, Bernard Jenkin. Indeed, losing Hurd is, for the Tories, losing a part of their history. Able to use words like duty, respect and service unself-consciously and without irony, he seems a throw-back to an almost forgotten Conservatism. He is a kind of talisman, a Tory from the days when Tories were Tories.

His "natural authority" is, partly, merely English upper-classness. From his hand-made shoes to his immovable upper lip, you could picture him serving under Macmillan or Eden. He speaks in an accent the rougher, estate agent Thatcherites can barely understand; and he holds to a social- conscience Toryism they certainly don't. He invented "active citizenship" years before the communitarians.

Yesterday, he described himself as a strong and loyal supporter of the Prime Minister. That is true. But he was never, I think, an uncritical admirer of John Major. He wished he was a better speaker, more eloquent, more forceful. Yet he strongly admires Major's doggedness, decency and negotiating skills. As an insider's politician, Hurd always had a professional's admiration for the private insidery skills of Major, too, and was generous about him, far beyond the call of duty.

At times, he seemed to regard the younger man rather as an uncle regards a wayward nephew who is doing rather better than expected. By the end, Hurd had approached something of Willie Whitelaw's status in the Thatcher years - a steady and discreet source of advice to Major on a host of domestic issues, from Scotland to the state of the party.

The two men, so different, have been hooped together and their reputations will be inter-linked, above all on the two great questions of European union and Bosnia. The latter will go down as a great Western failure. Hurd would argue that since we don't know what would have happened had we supplied arms to the Bosnian government forces, creating what he termed "a level killing field" - or had we become involved in the fighting ourselves - we cannot judge. Maybe. What is clear is that the caricature of Hurd as a chilly Serb appeaser made by some in the US and Britain is a grotesque and silly libel.

But it is Hurd's contribution to the big question of Europe's political future that offers the most fascinating challenge for historians. Before turning to another work of fiction, he owes us his account of it. For he very nearly invented a new political model for the Continent.

Trying to reconcile the growing nationalism in his own party with the grand projects of his European colleagues, Hurd came up with a distinctive and complex British vision. It was a Europe of intersecting circles and opt-outs, of pillars and "variable geometry," neither federal nor merely an association. He became fascinated by the creation of a policy as complex as any 19th-century web of alliances and provocations indulged in by his predecessors.

The Hurd-Major model for Europe was, and is, ingenious. It is a mental triumph, rather as logical positivism is a mental triumph. But, sadly, it is also democratic and populist in the same way that Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a ripping good read. Hurd and Major have struggled to reconcile different visions of Europe in the interests of party. But the more they have struggled, the less true reconciliation there has been.

This is not surprising. However much you can nuance different views in treaties or ministerial communiques, you cannot in the end reconcile continental federalism and raw island nationalism. It would have been better for the Tory Party had it been led clearly in one direction or another from the first. But that, in the end, must be a Prime Minister's decision, not a Foreign Secretary's one.

This long and eventually hopeless struggle has brought the two of them to this extraordinary June. One is going with dignity and the other is fighting on with a certain reckless bravery. But whatever happens to Major in the next fortnight, Hurd's announcement means that the Tory government that continues will feel very different from the government of 1990-95. And not only very different - but worse.