Magazine article The Spectator

What Mr Hague's Team Intend to Do about Mr Clarke-And to Him

Magazine article The Spectator

What Mr Hague's Team Intend to Do about Mr Clarke-And to Him

Article excerpt

Last week, William Hague secured a victory in his shadow Cabinet which had eluded both Margaret Thatcher and John Major in their Cabinets. He persuaded his senior colleagues to agree to a sceptical line on the European single currency. Mr Hague had already decided on one of his principal rallying cries for the next general election: `Vote Conservative to save the pound'. The shadow Cabinet has now cleared the way for him to use it; he regards that as the most important thing he has achieved since becoming leader.

Others are less enthusiastic. On the night of Mr Hague's election victory, Ken Clarke brought his campaign team round to Hague HQ to toast the victor. Mr Clarke was in his customary rumbustious form, insisting, as he raised his champagne glass, that the congratulations were sincere; it was not true that the Clarkeites had only come round because they had run out of beer and crisps. But not all Mr Clarke's supporters were smiling. David Curry, an archEurophile, looked dyspeptic. Mr Curry did accept a place in the shadow Cabinet, but it is not clear whether he will last the course. He found last week's decision hard to swallow and may still be suffering from indigestion.

Mr Curry's delicate stomach has already limited Mr Hague's freedom of manoeuvre. Less than three weeks after the Conservative conference agreed on the need to avoid any recurrence of the destructive indiscipline of the last Parliament, there was a renewed outbreak. Ian Taylor, a front-bencher, let it be known that on Monday he had gone to listen to Peter Lilley with a letter of resignation in his pocket; if he had found Mr Lilley's comments unacceptable, he would have delivered it.

There is only one way that a strong leadership can respond to such behaviour: Mr Taylor should have been sacked immediately. Other front-benchers might then have understood that if they want to make a complaint, they do so in the Leader's office and not in the press. But Mr Taylor was not fired, for fear of upsetting David Curry and George Young, another shadow Cabinet member. The unity which the shadow Cabinet displayed last week could not yet be put under too much strain.

But the most important Europhile dissenter did not join the shadow Cabinet. Though Ken Clarke likes to give the impression of insouciance, he understands the importance of timing. During the party conference, he stole some headlines by announcing that he still wanted to lead the Conservative party, while this Wednesday - the first Prime Minister's Questions after the recess - he presented Mr Blair with some helpful material. He wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph which, under a transparent guise of attacking Gordon Brown for indecision, was a declaration of war on William Hague's European policy.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Hague's staff had to interrupt the preparations for PM's Questions and have a meeting to decide what to do about Ken. It will not be the last such meeting, but the Hagueites do think that there is a solution.

They point out that Tony Blair has always had dissenters in his party; vide Tony Benn and Austin Mitchell this Monday. But they have never been able to threaten his authority in the way that the various warring Tory factions undermined John Major, because Mr Blair has always been able to set out his own position clearly and dominate the intra-party debate. As a result, dissident voices are marginalised, just as Ted Heath was in the 1980s; Mr Hague's advisers now intend to marginalise Ken Clarke. …

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