Nightmare on Downing Street

The Conservatives cannot succeed on their merits because they have none, believes Ivan Massow. But L

Close your eyes and picture this: it is May 2001, and outside the door of No 10 stands the new Prime Minister, his beloved wife at his side. The crowd of well-wishers cheer: "William! William!" as William Jefferson Hague flashes a Churchillian V-sign. Only a few weeks ago, this would have been far-fetched. But now we have witnessed the prospect of a ten- to15-year stretch in the wilderness for Tories shrink to a bare three. And if the blip did translate into an election defeat for Labour, what awaits us could be a nightmare.

Notwithstanding the adage, "Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them", it would be a travesty of justice if Hague slipped through the net. He is a man who offers no co-ordinated policy approach for Britain, and who survives at the mercy of the Sun newspaper, with policies as inane and as ill-thought out as that newspaper's editorials. Crowd-pleasing, bandwagon gestures aside, what does Hague really stand for?

We know that Hague would cut 3p off petrol; that he promises not to increase taxes (who's promising to do otherwise? - oh, the Liberal Democrats); and that he thinks he can cut bureaucracy in the NHS (anyone who knows how ridiculously Central Office is run may question whether they would be capable of reforming one of the largest employers in Europe). Beyond that, what is his vision?

The skinhead Conservatism that has marked the "tabloidification" of the Conservatives has highlighted the cancer eating away at the very lungs of the party. We must stop this from spreading to Britain. Hague, whom I once saw as a leader with the courage and insight to stand up for equality and party reform, is overshadowed by two groups: his famously "scarecrow" shadow cabinet; and core Conservatives, the Tory leaflet deliverers, who patrol progress.

Let's start with the Cabinet, once it's no longer a shadow: Ann Widdecombe replacing Jack Straw as Home Secretary. She is as mad as a spoon! One faith, one race, one party, no sex, Widdecombe falls firmly under the "those who can't, teach" rule. It is strange how some of the most unbalanced people in the country become psychiatrists, and some of the most worldly become priests. Widdecombe, in the spirit of this lesson, is the opposite of "home" secretary: unless we're talking about the Addams family home.

John Redwood typifies the remaining Cabinet. Frightening as an individual, he, like many of his colleagues, is too much of a liability for Hague to risk leaving on the back benches, as he once tried. A constant thorn in the side of Tory reform, he personifies the awkward lack of imagination and vision that has come to mean Conservatism; in truth, he is the spanner in the works of progress, the no-hope opportunist that could not exist outside the Tory party.

Aside from Michael Portillo, the remaining Cabinet and Tory ministers are remarkable for their lack of remarkableness - held together by a commitment never to mention the word "euro", never to engage in a debate on the pound, except as a symbol of nationalism, and never to see past a 1950s version of family, social responsibility and society. Their platform is neo-racist, anti-gay, anti-single parent, anti-diversity.

Even more worrying than the Cabinet are the leafleteers, the party faithful. These are the men and women who would be running this country if the Tories got in. They are the core members, the Baroness Youngs and loony right-wingers, who actually do the dirty work of door-to-door campaigning for their party, holding coffee mornings in the shires to rustle up enthusiasm for their true-blue candidate - and thus hold Hague in their clutches. These are the people who, although literally dying out, set the tone of the party by their sheer dedication to "the cause". They manipulate the party - against Hague's wishes - on issues of race and sex. Theirs is the politics of the taxi driver. Asylum-seekers? Out with them! Gays? Lock 'em up! Bring back hanging! Block up the Tunnel . . .

You see them close up and personal if you go before a selection committee. As an openly gay prospective MP, I had to be rescued by the leadership (Hague recognised that the party needed more blacks, more women and even - gulp - a homosexual). Even though I had his backing, I was a "D1", which means that I did not fit the selection-procedure mould, but was to be allowed, anyway, on to the candidates list. Hague had promised he would reform the procedure - but he failed to push his proposals past the gimlet-eyed Conservatives.

My gay flatmate boasts an excellent pedigree - a First at Oxford and politics at Harvard - butone wonders whether he will ever get a win-nable seat. Like every disabled, black and almost every female candidate on the list, he gets gesture selection. This means that he has spent weekend after weekend in interviews (it is considered a compliment to be interviewed), but having passed the first three hurdles, never makes it to the final selection committee.

The story is always the same: "We would love to have you as our candidate, but we're just not sure whether the electorate is ready for you." Laughable, when the most popular party in history has gay Cabinet ministers and the Liberal Democrats have voted to legalise gay marriage.

So who does make it through? In a word, drones. Successful candidates are a reactionary, tame and middle-class lot. Ask them what vision they have for Britain, and they will tell you it is a land where the ways of the majority - and the institutions that uphold these ways, such as the army, the Church and the law - are sacrosanct. They parrot commitment to a morality of the past: freedom for the white, the middle class and the married.

Why do these people even stand a chance of becoming our governing party? They are obviously not winners. It is Labour supporters who seem intent on becoming losers. They persist in factionalism.

I was at a gathering that Chris Smith held recently at an art gallery in Islington. (Two months and I've become a part of the new Labour cliche!) I spoke and, afterwards, an "old" Labour man approached me. He was so eager to get rid of Tony Blair's government because it was "new" Labour that he didn't care if, in order to do this, he would instead allow the Tories into power.

Margaret Thatcher was an unpopular leader. In fact, she was largely hated by the electorate - but she earned their respect for her ideology. Blair's speech last Tuesday proved he, too, is prepared to sacrifice popularity for ideology and leadership.

When I close my eyes, I dream that the Labour faithful will respect that and help the country understand why this is so important.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street