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19 July 1999

The Tories’ summertime blues

William Hague needs to convince his followers that being an MP can be fun, writesGeorge Lucas

By George Lucas

Oh, for summertime. For Alan Clark, one July promotion a decade ago brought its own most special celebration: “I always said I’d open a bottle of 1916 Latour when I got to MoD [Ministry of Defence], so we split that as an aperitif,” he recalled. In Clark’s genuinely magnificent Diaries, an elegantly constructed legend of fine wines, marathon dinners, fast cars and foreign extravaganzas, it was always, seemingly, midsummer. The days were hot, hushed, almost hypnotic; the shadows inviting.

Strikingly little of this remains. From the Tories’ perspective, the ending of those days has crushed more than the dreams of political diary addicts. William Hague’s managerialism is running the twin risks of leaving voters and potentially election-winning superstar recruits dangerously unmoved. He should work to restore at least some former pleasures, for while few would support unmitigated hedonism amid parliamentary law-making, Tory life needs to be fun again. His apparent unwillingness – an outlandish Euro victory notwithstanding – to loosen the reins and cheer the troops is, frankly, curious.

The former transport secretary, Steven Norris, urges former colleagues to “relax, laugh more”. But what at? Sir Teddy Taylor recalls how in 1964 there was a real “air of excitement . . . parliament was deciding things”; but he finds debates now “pointless nonsense”. David Amess, first elected in 1983, says that Westminster “has changed completely”. One representative calls it “earnest”. Another finds the place “rather humourless”. A third mentions boredom: “There are days upon days when nothing much seems to be happening.”

Arguably the most unhappy opposition for decades, those remembering old times now huddle, like Somme survivors, at tables where previously they reclined with friends now long departed. The loss of power remains a torment; the clout that Westminster itself has lost to devolution also niggles badly. Some rituals remain, among them dinners on crisp white tablecloths in fine rooms with fine Whitehall views, but the certainty has gone. Daily life is a vastly expanded mailbag and an explosion of committee work, pressing burdens for MPs with support facilities that in other G7 states would be confined to political comedy. Long hours are spent helping distressed constituents, visiting life prisoners and supplying other small but precious kindnesses, as many indeed always have done. But while the duties remain, too many benefits have vanished.

An estimated dozen or so hardliners still enjoy the Pall Mall clubs so central to Clark’s folklore, although, sensing shifting acceptabilities, they largely conceal themselves from scrutiny. Others display exasperation at a world turned hideously upside down. Some assert that many Tories are now poorer than their Labour counterparts, and there is some distinctly wishful gazing at the scores of barristers and business people thronging the other side.

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The MP’s life has also lost its social focus. Only the most stellar chamber occasions pull MPs in; those that watch proceedings generally do so on televisions in the calm – and isolation – of their offices. Those seeking conversation say they are often disappointed: heavier workloads leave the smoking room, dining rooms and tearooms all too frequently deserted. Even new buildings have brought indignities. One MP nearing pension age says that from Millbank, he has to “run for more or less ten minutes” to vote on time.

So it is hard to imagine anyone, bar the most ardent neo-Churchills, Disraelis or Macmillans, starting out on the path of political life. Public respect, in the wake of defeat and the perennial implosion of reputations, has evaporated. As Taylor notes, when he was elected in 1964 his parents “were thrilled to bits”, but since then the “status has really crumbled”.

Some have attempted to restore civilities. One dining club absorbs the suggestions of thinkers such as Frederick Forsyth. Some work tirelessly within the ever-expanding labyrinth of committees. Others, despite the chamber’s diminished status, turn up daily to harass, to meddle and to learn their trade. A privileged few enjoy compelling diversions: directorships furthering the arts, snatched weekends at quasi-secret conferences with the world’s best.

Such things alone will not return the Tories to power. One option for Hague is to switch to a style more reminiscent of Matt Busby, a smiling ringmaster, replacing the pleasant but stern Roundhead presented so far. Too many colleagues feel life is too short for such gruelling drudge; the sharpest among them could easily drift away. The alternatives are too beguiling; the pain of watching others pluck the fruits too agonising. Far better, surely, for Hague to encourage and inspire the political George Bests and David Beckhams he needs to make genuine headway. He should become – with due irony – his MPs’ shop steward, campaigning for the back-up they sorely need to free them to spend more weekday hours with each other, which would be infinitely more valuable than a handful of hotel weekends. The odd victory at Prime Minister’s Questions – everyone knows such gymnastics stand barely an earthly of making the evening news – is insufficient. They want their arena, their old familiar customs, their reason for being there restored.

It is not exclusively Hague’s fault that so much has changed. But to continue as now, seemingly merely hoping for victory, not taking every step to ensure it, makes no sense at all.

He needs to show his army a better time – or else face, from his perspective, the gut-wrenching prospect of these unpleasantnesses of political exile continuing for many summers to come.