MY ALL-TIME low point in opinion polls was in the first months of the Labour-run GLC when, after a horrendous avalanche of attacks from Fleet Street (as it then was), an audience selection poll revealed that 35 per cent of Londoners thought I was doing a good or satisfactory job, while 52 per cent thought I was bad or appalling. I thought that was as bad as things could get until John Major's satisfaction rating dipped briefly to just under 20 per cent. Of course, William Hague would die for such figures.
Given how highly MPs of all parties rate Hague's performance at the dispatch box and commend his lack of arrogance or other unpleasant character traits, it's hard to work out why his ratings are so bad that he is even managing to trail the Tory Party. The Tories have now seized the record for worst polling record by a major party from the Labour Party, which gained this unhappy accolade during Michael Foot's leadership prior to the 1983 election.
As any good Marxist will tell you, individuals do not determine the course of history, the social and economic forces that sweep through the world do. While this is a generalisation, I think it contains the core of the truth about the relevance of individuals to the political process. It's clearly not an accident that the demise of the Tory Party coincides with the defeat of Newt Gingrich in America, while almost all the governments of Europe are now under the control of the left or centre-left. Given that only 10 years ago the predominant ideology of governments in America and Europe was firmly in the hands of right-wing free marketeers, clearly something bigger than Hague is at work.
I have no doubt that if the Tories had selected Ken Clarke as leader they would now be doing better in the polls and Clarke would be having much fun on the vexed question of Britain's over-inflated interest rates. But the difference would merely be a matter of degree, and Labour would still be on course for a second election victory.
Hague has a particular problem that most other right-wing party leaders today are spared. For he cannot avoid the issue of Europe and the euro, bearing down on his party with the destructive force of a tactical nuclear weapon. Hague's problem is that the Tory Party has always been a coalition between big business and the petty bourgeoisie, and, on the issue of Europe, their interests clash. Big business is not prepared to support a political party that might hold back from joining the euro. Every corporate boss knows that, while Britain staying out of the euro for two or three years presents no long-term problem, the Tory policy of remaining outside for at least a decade would put most of Britain's big multinationals at a severe disadvantage. Indeed, such a long-term exclusion from the euro could lead many corporations to consider relocating their main centres of operation to the euro zone.
The other component of the great Tory coalition are the thousands of small businesses throughout Britain that, since time immemorial, have staffed and run their local Conservative associations. While big business can compete on the European playing field, and trade unionists should be protected by Europe's social agenda, the middle class is the group most likely to be squeezed by the euro project.
This is Hague's dilemma. The rank and file of his party, believing they are acting to defend their standard of living, have carried out a veritable ethnic cleansing of Tory MPs, picking on the slightest Europhile tendencies. Much of the rhetoric behind this purge has been xenophobic and, particularly, anti-German, but the driving fear has been the harsher economic climate threatened by closer European integration. As long as this is the predominant ethos in the modern Tory party, big business will continue to work for the return of Blair. If it began to look as though Hague might actually be moving towards an election victory based on support from Conrad Black's Daily Telegraph and the Murdoch empire (the objection of which to Europe is primarily because it stands to benefit more from American economic dominance), I suspect Britain's great corporations would act decisively to thwart that victory.
So Hague's dilemma is, in reality, insoluble. He can't win without the support of big business and he can only regain that support by reversing the party's policy. Any attempt to do this would plunge his party into a civil war that would make Labour's infighting of the early Eighties look like a Methodist tea party.
If this were not bad enough, Hague has the other problem that his party is still tied to all the free-market dogma of the Thatcher-Reagan years as the rest of the world is moving on to talk about managing trade and capital flows in order to tame the market. The most dramatic example of this is George Soros, who, on Monday's Newsnight, attacked the rules by which international investors operated. These, he argued, did not have enough regard for social consequences. He condemned the dogma of the "moral force" of the market. Markets, he said, were not moral but amoral.
Yesterday, asked whether Western governments and multinational organisations had begun to understand that corruption is a force not just for economic instability but also for political instability, he replied emphatically: "Not sufficiently." He added: "There is always somebody who pays, and international business is generally the main source of corruption." He also attacked the "internecine battle between the oligarchs" in Russia, where Yeltsin's robotic assumption of all the neo-liberal nostrums has led to the deepest and most prolonged recession in any country in history. Mr Soros will be subscribing to Socialist Economic Bulletin at this rate.
Given that Hague cannot reopen the issue of Europe, his only chance to regain some popular appeal would be to put the Tories at the forefront of the fight to protect Britain from the ravages of the unregulated international economy. Such a stance would not be out of line with the broad message of the election campaign of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, which managed to capture 3 per cent of the Tory vote. It is being taken up by right-wing populists in America and Europe. But it would put Hague in the same camp as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front - not a happy prospect. Perhaps the best advice I could give Hague is to resign, spend more time with Ffion and let some other poor sod try and square these circles. Only someone as mad as John Redwood is fit for this unhappy role.
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