Onward, Christian Tories

With membership of the Conservative Party down to its lowest level since 1914, William Hague is forc

When William Hague became Conservative leader in 1997, the last thing he wanted his party to get back to was basics. He was the young (in years, if not looks) face of cool Conservatism. Vindictiveness was replaced with an insouciance towards the varied ways the citizenry found to cope with the messiness of life. Hague had many gay friends. He emphasised his willingness to lower the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 and to allow gay marriages. ("When they're not causing harm to other people, why should we object?") He wanted a compassionate understanding of the circumstances of the single mothers whom Peter Lilley, one of the most devout representatives of Christian Toryism, had hounded in office. ("It is better for a child to have one happy parent who cares and loves him or her than to have two and suffer from domestic violence.") He had visited the Notting Hill Carnival in a baseball cap, signalling a sincere if gauche acceptance of multiculturalism, and daringly slept in a hotel suite with Ffion Jenkins before a vicar had joined them in matrimony.

The religious right found his postures unbearable. "Why do I share a party with those who advocate sodomite marriage?" howled Norman Tebbit like a prophet being shoved wildernesswards. Tim Montgomerie, the director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, warned Hague that cohabiting with Ffion (or anyone else for that matter) violated "the Christian ideal". Only by remaining the guardians of our nation's Judaeo-Christian traditions, he added, could the leader "attract many Christians and others of traditional belief into the activist-hungry Tory party".

Three years on, and Hague has been through 13 rebrandings, according to those dazed political commentators who are paid to to keep up with his facelifts. After being Hague the Tolerant, Hague the Funky, Hague the British Wayer, Hague the Free Trader, Hague the Commonsensical, he has settled, for the time being at least, on Hague the Angel of the Lord.

He visited 8,000 ecstatic evangelicals who gathered to bother God in the Butlin's camp at Minehead, Somerset, just before Easter. None of those who attended his sermon at the Spring Harvest festival could have been in any doubt that the martial arts which Hague has been practising with Seb Coe have led to anything other than the most muscular brand of Christianity. Much of what he said, to be sure, was so vapid, the growth of the grass under the audience's feet might have acquired an arresting fascination. He told the bathetic story of a vicar who saw all sorts of people - "young and old, men and women, black and white" - at a zoo. "The vicar speculated that they were a church outing. 'What other organisation in society brings different people together so successfully?' he wondered." The vicar made enquiries and - you'll never guess - they were from a church group.

While the audience reeled from the punchline, Hague made specific promises from a Christian agenda far from Christian Democracy. His flirtation with homosexuality was an adolescent phase. He had, it transpired, been opposed to repealing Clause 28 long "before the issue became newsworthy". Family values were his values, as was the "Judaeo-Christian tradition" (a tradition which, as neither he nor his new friends appeared to know, largely consists of Jews living in fear of Christians).

He turned on the media, not, for once, for being nests of revolutionary socialists, but for the lack of Christian content amid the filth on the airwaves. "With so much material on television no parents would want their children to see, we must give a full opportunity for Christians to put forward exciting and wholesome alternatives. The next Conservative government will ensure that Christians have the same right to national and digital licences as anyone else."

Hague, in short, was proposing to import the tele-evangelism of American fundamentalism to Britain. For the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the conversion of the Tory Constantine is the culmination of a decade's work to bring the ways and means of Pat Robertson ( Rupert Murdoch's favourite fanatic) to the heart of the Conservative Party. Evangelicals who had glared at Hague with a witchfinder's suspicion now adore him for giving them the opportunity to dive into the mainstream. Every day, according to the fellowship's newsletter, the Wilberforce Quarterly, 30 members pray for his immortal soul - as well they might.

The fellowship's dash from the fringe has been physical as well as ideological. It moved from premises in the nicely named Widecombe Court, in Finchley, north London, to rooms in Conservative Central Office, down the corridor from Hague.

Tim Montgomerie, a thirtysomething City analyst, founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship in 1990 and persuaded Peter Lilley, Ann Widdecombe and Brian Mawhinney to sit on its council. From the beginning, he envied the success of the US Christian Coalition in dominating much of the Republican Party and its "work in calling that country back to God's laws". In 1995, he made a pilgrimage to America to receive instruction. "The coalition have provided me with high-quality resources," he said on his return.

A vicious religiosity unknown in British politics outside Northern Ireland and Glasgow began to bubble in Tory propaganda. We should not ask gays to vote Conservative, thundered Montgomerie. Instead, "we should expose the unbiblical and the libertine". Homosexuality was a sickness that could be healed by "repentance and faith in the Lord". According to the Wilberforce Quarterly, tens of thousands had already found Christ and the missionary position by this route.

Montgomerie believes that the adherents of other faiths and secular believers in traditional morals will be attracted to the Tories by his tactics - and the Clause 28 row has shown he may be right. Yet his colleagues find the heathen hard to stomach. Before the 1997 election, the fellowship welcomed the selection of Andrew Rosindell as Tory candidate for Thurrock. Rosindell's proudest achievement was to fight against "the awarding of a cash handout to an Islamic group".

Frances Berrill, a regular contributor to the Quarterly's Prayerline section, described how she had infiltrated a meeting of the Terrence Higgins Trust on Aids. "One speaker was a Jewess who had lost her son and the other was a homosexual with Aids. They spoke with "a sort of arrogance I found quite intimidating." Quite so. The woman's boy may be dead, but she still aggressively thrust her Semitic nose forward. The pushy bitch.

Hague's patronage has allowed the fellowship to go beyond mere sneers at Aids sufferers and become a voice in the affairs of his party. Steve Norris, for instance, has seen too much of the world (and enjoyed too much of what he has seen) to be an acceptable London mayoral candidate to the righteous. Montgomerie urged Tories to complain to Central Office when Norris declared he didn't give a fig about Clause 28 and added that the Metropolitan Police had better things to do with its time than fret about homosexual acts in public. When the details of the young Michael Portillo's difficulties with boys were published, a meeting of the fellowship passed the motion that he was unfit for public life by two to one. Montgomerie's programme for the future, Stronger Families for Everyone - which carries a warm introduction from Hague - echoes the Archbishop of Canterbury's support for News of the Screws' invasions of politicians' private lives.

For all the unaccustomed applause Hague is now receiving, his embrace of evangelicals appears weird. In the 1997 election campaign, the fellowship bombarded churches with leaflets warning that, among other sins, a Labour government would legalise euthanasia. Dr Adrian Rogers, president of the Conservative Family Institute, ran against the openly gay Labour candidate Ben Bradshaw in Exeter. For Rogers, homosexuality was "sterile, disease-ridden and God-forsaken". He handed out leaflets asking "every Exeter parent and everyone concerned about our country's children: Do you want an MP who wants to promote homosexuality in schools?" They did. Bradshaw thrashed Rogers and all the fellowship's efforts did nothing to stop a Labour landslide.

Hague the Tolerant appeared to recognise that Bible-bashing was getting the party nowhere. Rogers's Conservative Family Institute was wound up in January 1999 under pressure, he claimed, from Hague supporters, who "wanted to adopt gay candidates" and lower the age of consent.

A report by the Scripture Union, released just before Easter, said that 8 per cent of the British population attended Sunday services, and predicted that, if the calamitous decline in numbers continued, the pews would be pretty much empty in 40 years. Whereas in the Christian Coalition's United States, just under half the population goes to church and many more believe in heaven, the devil and angels.

Why, then, is Hague singing from Montgomerie's hymn book? Edward Gibbon said the pagan Constantine found it politic to convert to Christianity because: "In the beginning of the fourth century, the Christians still bore a very inadequate proportion to the inhabitants of the empire; but among a degenerate people, who viewed the change of masters with the indifference of slaves, the spirit and union of a religious party might assist the popular leader, to whose service from a principle of confidence, they had devoted their lives and fortunes."

Apathy afflicts the political process and participation in elections has collapsed. In particular, the degenerate people refuse to treat Hague with anything but indifference.

Membership of a dying Conservative Party has dropped to its lowest level since 1914. The Tories are indeed "activist-hungry", as Montgomerie spotted. If in the evangelicals Hague can find devoted and energetic followers who might assist him, he has little choice but to court them.

Or, as a Conservative aide at Butlins put it in language less elegant than Gibbon's: "The evangelical vote could be vital in a general election with a low turnout."

The Tories may be clutching at straws, but what else do they have to clutch at?

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone