Soak the rich and save the Tories
Andrew Marrgenerously offers tips to William Hague (and Ffion) on how to prevent his party whistling
William Hague is a naturally good-humoured man - a robust digestive system, one imagines, strong constitution, good sleeper. He is unnaturally equable. And the problem with that is that sometimes it's right to be a little panicky, just a touch tormented. And for the Tories, the time is now. Are they not strolling, smiling blandly, just a little condescendingly, to oblivion?
It is all very well to titter, but politics needs effective opposition. Hague now faces yet more Tory plotters, pro-euro splitters, snide sneering from life's natural Portillo-worshippers. So what should he do? Bar hoping for a European economic catastrophe, which would shred hundreds of thousands of British jobs, is there any way out for the Conservative leader at all? Here, offered in a helpful spirit, are ten suggestions.
1 Rethink the euro The most important thing, if Hague seriously wants to be prime minister, is the most difficult - to moderate his policy on the euro. Unequivocal Tory hostility to monetary union is what keeps Tony Blair sleeping sweetly at night. It is also what divides the Tories from their natural support in the City and big business; money can see, if Smith Square can't, that a country outside the euro will soon, in effect, be outside the EU.
At the moment, Hague's position is perfectly honourable - he would much prefer to fight the euro and lose, than not to fight - but it lacks the self-preserving strategic sense a great party leader requires. The Prime Minister would never enter a referendum on the subject unless he was sure he'd win it. Ergo, Hague is certain either to fail to get his fight; or to lose if he does fight. So this is a lethal policy - the romantic oppositionism of a Tory leadership group partly reconciled to dying in its last ditch.
Ditch the ditch, I say to Hague. Temporise. Soften. Slide away from the fatal position. Salami-slice the language. Act with great care and agility to show that, though you have common-sense problems with the single currency, you could certainly envisage joining under the right circumstances.
It would appal your friends. But you've been a politician since puberty and you must be able to see the quotation marks around their smiles every time they enter your office. Their lifetime's reputations aren't hanging on the policy; if you fail, they'll never have known you in the first place. More painfully, it would infuriate newspaper editors and columnists. But how much slack have these secure, well-paid fellows cut you anyway? Disregard them.
Hague will probably just laugh his agreeable laugh and talk about being a politician of principle. Let him think, though: his euro policy eases and smooths on its way everything he regards as a new Labour impertinence, every overweening act, every short-cut by ministers. It is the fatal mistake which means so many people and institutions don't consider him a serious alternative leader for Britain. Europhile propaganda? Fact.
2 Go local The next most important change is to rebuild the Tory base where it must be rebuilt - away from London. Local government was hemmed in, ridiculed and degraded in the Conservative years, particularly under Margaret Thatcher. Philosophically, that behaviour was anti-Tory at the time. In every sense, it is batty today. The Tory revival will begin in the shires and town halls, when people begin to be irritated by the new masters in Whitehall. But that revival is limited by the Conservatives' hostility to local politics for the past 20 years.
What is needed, therefore, is a full, open, breast-beating reconversion to local government. A strength of the Conservative Party has always been its decentralised voluntary wing. The Scottish Tories, facing their particular problems, have already been given permission to do their own thing. So why not extend that, rebranding the party as the Somerset Tories, the Merseyside Conservatives, Tories of the Black Country, and so on? Allow a certain local latitude. It would make a startling contrast to new Labour centralism and control-freakery. Meanwhile, seek localist policies, such as giving councils the ability to raise bonds for public expenditure. Turn anti-quango in a big way. It's time someone did.
3 Attack the Dome Sorry, Michael Heseltine. And yes, I know it's too late. But needs must. Launch a campaign for the best alternative uses for the Dome and promote an alternative patriotic knees-up in Trafalgar Square to greet the millennium. The party will love it.
4 Build the blue-green alliance In his attacks on the genetically modified food industry, Hague has already tiptoed in this direction. The Tory heartland is becoming more environmentalist, not less - perhaps the influence of Prince Charles and the Daily Telegraph has something to do with it. There is a rich vein of populism to be mined here, particularly when Labour is perceived to be too close to business. If German socialists can make tactical alliances with environmentalism, why not British Tories? The sight of an angry Hague leading a protest against some proposed new road through a verdant valley would be ridiculed by some - but would play very well with the country.
5 The Tory Forum You have an unhappy shadow cabinet choice between grand but often disliked has-beens and callow, unknown might-never-bes. The most persuasive Tory voices seem to be newspaper columnists. So why not introduce weekly open meetings, first at Central Office, then at a larger venue, where Tory MPs, writers and interested outsiders can join in an ideas forum - a subject of the week, then an open agenda about the week's events. If you could create a sense of serious, lively, unpredictable political debate, the rewards would be high. It would encourage your own people to think and speak out - since you would be there, watching. It would give the media something to bite on.
6 Fair taxes New Labour is raising all sorts of taxes, as you have pointed out. But because it can't touch income tax, the government is prone to creating a new system of perverse incentives. Why don't you propose a higher rate for people earning over £100,000, in order to make life a little easier for struggling Middle Britain? It is hard to think of anything else that would so wrong-foot Labour and be so popular.
7 Campaign for the Commons In recent decades Tories have championed parliament against Brussels but, in practice, colluded in its decay. Break that tradition. You might consider compulsory voting for MPs (except by prior agreement of the Speaker); shorter, more workmanlike hours; shorter recesses; a ban on video links of the chamber in MPs' offices; a new parliamentary offence of bringing improper pressure upon a member, directed overtly at lobbyists but mainly at the whips' offices; and a new committee system that unites select and standing committees, so that backbenchers become true experts and can scrutinise legislation better.
8 Bring back John Major No, not as leader. But for all the devastating effect of the 1997 election, Major is still seen as a fundamentally decent, likeable and experienced politician by a large section of the electorate. He would be an acute critic and a great addition to your team. This unexpected and generous move would be widely welcomed.
9 Tease Don't rant. Don't rage. Don't give us synthetic, hyperbolic fury at every ministerial slip - and don't allow your colleagues to exaggerate, either. Aim instead to get under ministers' skin. Your deadliest weapon is humour. If anything can destroy new Labour, it's the prospect of being the first administration in history that was teased to destruction.
10 Reproduce I must be allowed one impertinent and personal suggestion. This remains a sentimental, sloppy nation. Nothing could do more for your popularity than the sight of another little baldie Hague balanced snottily against your chest. At which point, this gratuitous advice croaks into silence; for that is, frankly, a matter for Ffion.