It has become a staple of William Hague’s tough-guy act that he glories in taking attacks, as he puts it, “in his stride”. Given that during the festive season he has had to take – whether in his stride or not only he knows – attacks from Shaun Woodward, Kenneth Clarke, John Major and Lord Howe, we must at least admit he is experienced at it and forgive him the sense of complacency he conveys.
The theme of the assault has been that the party is “moving to the right”. This is an interesting supposition, and one not shared by a couple of million or so ex-Tory voters for whom the party is simply not conservative enough. It is also fair to say that if the Tories were to fight the next election on a platform of cosying up to Europe (at a time when the Labour government appears to be trying to put more distance between itself and the EU) and allowing ratepayers’ money to be spent on guides to cottaging, it would be hard-pressed to cling on to the few supporters it has.
Hague faces a terrible dilemma. Despite all the jibes at him, despite the incompetence of his team and despite the lingering effect of the London mayoral shambles, the party is still picking up seats at local elections. This may have more to do with the dismally low turnout by Labour supporters than with the appeal of the Tory party, but Hague and his people are taking it as proof that the so-called “common sense revolution” has struck some chords.
Yet, at the same time, Hague is apparently passing up the opportunity to reconnect with sectional interests in the country that are registering more and more frustration with the government – such as NHS workers, teachers and policemen. It is a cause of grief to the party’s grass roots that the Conservatives have largely ceased to campaign on these issues; and it looks as though this is because Tories assume that such public service workers regard them as beyond the pale.
This is a bizarre assumption. For a start, many who share some of the values of the “common sense revolution” work in the public services. Some even oppose a single European currency – if the overwhelming rejection of it recorded in opinion polls is remotely accurate – and possibly even a few of them would prefer their council tax to be spent on schools and social services, rather than on guides to cottaging.
Also, did not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown teach the plutocrats of the City of London to love the Labour Party, which had been the Antichrist in the Square Mile throughout the Thatcher years? And how does the Conservative Party expect to make headway unless it starts to attack in areas where there is public resonance – such as the crisis in the NHS, the still unacceptably low standards in our schools and the progressive demoralisation of the police?
There is also the little matter of the party’s economic policy, exposed as footling by the resignation from its economic advisory panel of Irwin Stelzer, an adviser to Rupert Murdoch. It showed the Tories’ naivety that they were prepared to brag about their connection with Stelzer; but much more revealing about the state of the party’s intellectual health was Stelzer’s Sunday Times revelation that the Tories seemed afraid to believe in proper liberal economics.
Instead of absorbing the blows like a brave but incompetent batsman faced by a West Indian pace attack, Hague must start delivering a few of his own. Although some recent cock-ups have been down to his poor judgement of people and issues, he must also accept that the public regards most of his team as either invisible, useless or a particularly damaging combination of both.
I have written before here that he needs a new party treasurer, and Michael Ashcroft’s settlement of his suit against the Times without so much as a syllable of apology from the paper makes that blindingly necessary. Ashcroft is seen as Hague’s man. Any further difficulties in this quarter could threaten the belief that Hague’s position is safe until the election.
Ashcroft, though, is only the start.
In his handling of the Ashcroft business, and his increasingly flaky public reactions to difficulties, Michael Ancram has shown that he lacks the coolness and the intellect to be the party chairman Hague needs. Michael Portillo has nothing to do, and several in Hague’s circle feel he must have this high-profile post. Most pressing of all, however, is the need for a new chief whip, after James Arbuthnot’s arrogant handling of Shaun Woodward provided the latter with the excuse to throw all his toys out of the pram.
Then Hague must find health and education spokesmen whose passion for their portfolios translates into party campaigns in these areas, and who can win public recognition for themselves. He should also inform Ann Widdecombe, who is otherwise doing well at home affairs, that the Tory party has nothing to lose by taking up the case of a demoralised and underpaid police force that badly needs reform. And until Labour starts making noises about preparing for entry into the euro – and it looks as though there is more chance of hell freezing over at the moment – they should shut up about Europe and give their internal critics less opportunity to spout their fantasies about a “move to the right”.
Hague’s position is not hopeless, but it does require resolute action, changes of personnel and a lot less bullshit. Hague himself, with his mindless reaffirmations of his “toughness”, is positively drowning in the stuff. He must remember that his party has to stand for something and has to start appealing to the sectional interests Labour is offending. If the Tories can’t do that, they are effectively saying that they have no ideas relevant to the current state of political debate; and, for want of any proper strategy by Hague, we shall have to assume that that is, after all, the true nature of the problem.
The writer, a “Daily Mail” columnist, is our Conservative Party correspondent