Magazine article The Spectator

A Danger Lurking for Mr Hague

Magazine article The Spectator

A Danger Lurking for Mr Hague

Article excerpt

Even at the best-regulated coronations, accidents can happen. William Hague has promised a `special conference' at which he will submit himself to the ordinary members of his party for endorsement as leader. Unless the exercise is to be hollow - in which case it will invite mockery - it could become a genuine test of the party's opinion. This is most unwise.

We do not know the party's opinion. It might be the wrong opinion. What is Hague up to? No doubt it seemed a smart thing to say at the time, but has he thought this through? Has anyone? I suppose the new Tory leader had it in mind to emulate Tony Blair's love-fest over Clause 4. If so, he may have chosen the wrong precedent.

In 1981 Michael Foot, just elected leader by Labour MPs, proposed that an electoral college endorse him at a special conference at Wembley. This took on a life of its own. The conference turned ugly; platform speakers were barracked cruelly from the floor, and David Owen, Shirley Williams and the electorate saw a face of Labour which defined the party for years to follow.

It was what we now like to call a defining moment. A day later, the Gang of Four issued their `Limehouse Declaration' and founded the SDP. Thus an occasion which party members hoped to present as a rally - the beginning of the road back to government -- caused instead a rout, beginning the road into a 15-year wilderness.

'I remember walking to my car thinking, "there it is, it's all over", and I decided to go down with the ship,' recalled Roy Hattersley. `The strange death of Labour England seemed to be upon us.'

The press were looking for trouble. The British people had recently chased Labour angrily out of office and the newspapers, still hostile to the opposition, were looking for ways to lampoon extremists and fan the flames of mutiny. Journalists failed to write the conference up as the new leader hoped. Could the Tories' 1997 offer parallels with Labour's 1981?

Mr Hague would prefer for his text a different lesson: Book of Labour, Gospel according to Tony, chapter 2, 1995, verses relating to Clause 4. But the Clause 4 consultation was a very different affair. Neither Mr Blair's goal nor his certainty of achieving it was in question. The new Labour leader was guided by his reforming pillars of cloud by day and fire by night, and we all vastly approved. It is too early, with Mr Hague, for fire or cloud, and we are all a bit undecided.

Labour's `Road to the Manifesto' referendum, which came next, was hollow, a PR ploy. From the Tories such blancmange would have been laughed to scorn, but Labour was able to rely on a bandwagon of goodwill from the press, and Mr Blair got away with it. Can the Tories rely on the same goodwill?

We know nothing, yet, about the manner in which Mr Hague seeks to arrange his own coronation. `They can back me or sack me,' he said at Central Office last week, `because without the endorsement of members in the constituencies we will not be able to embark on a challenge so great as the one that faces us.'

Well, there's a simple way to organise that endorsement: through a referendum of the whole party by secret ballot. Spin doctors have been muttering that this is not what is intended. It would not, they say, be possible. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation why. …

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