Magazine article The Spectator

The Big Beasts Cannot Always Live Together, but It's More of a Problem for Mr Hague

Magazine article The Spectator

The Big Beasts Cannot Always Live Together, but It's More of a Problem for Mr Hague

Article excerpt

It was Douglas Hurd who coined the phrase `big beasts of the jungle'. He used it to describe that small number of political eminences whose status is not determined by the office they hold. Because they have a command of party opinion, or public opinion - or both - their fortunes are not solely dependent on prime ministerial patronage. Big beasts can make the political weather. Such individuals are often exhilarating and frequently dangerous. They are also crucial to a government's success; prime ministers need powerful adjutants to help them bear the load. But in politics, able subordinates not only solve problems, they create them. Inevitably, they want promotion and, ultimately, there is only one job which will satisfy them. So a prime minister who is a good patron may well find that he is sharpening knives for his own back.

To paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, the great beasts cannot always live together. The problem of big beast management has bedevilled most long-serving modern premiers. The exceptions were Churchill, whose transcendence rendered him immune, plus Baldwin and Attlee, whose non-confrontational style enabled them to corral a number of characters who had previously been regarded as more substantial figures than their bosses.

But Margaret Thatcher found it hard to reach a modus vivendi with her big beasts. Pym, Heseltine, Tebbit, Lawson, Howe; in each case, the relationship ended in estrangement. There was one exception, Willie Whitelaw, who justified her assertion that every government needs a Willie. But did she not value her Willie primarily because, like Rab Butler before him, he was a rare combination: a big beast who was also a political eunuch?

William Hague and Tony Blair are both now discovering that dealing with big beasts is one of the trickiest aspects of political husbandry. In Mr Hague's case, there were bound to be difficulties. He came to the leadership young and unknown, after less than two years as the most junior member of the Cabinet; it is hardly surprising that some of the older members of his party are still bewildered. But Mr Hague faces graver problems than bewilderment; he inherited a party that is hopelessly divided on a basic issue of principle.

Only one interpretation can be placed on the so-called grandees' letter which greeted Mr Hague on his return from honeymoon; it was a declaration of war. On European federalism, there is only one difference between most of the letter's signatories and Chancellor Kohl. They are quite as enthusiastic as he is; but unlike them, he is intellectually honest.

The Tory federalists seem at last to have come to terms with the fact that they have lost control of the party, but they are not prepared to go quietly. They are offering Mr Hague a stark choice: surrender to us, or we sabotage you. This is especially true of Michael Heseltine, who is increasingly out of sympathy with his party on a range of issues, and will mobilise all the formidable resources of his reckless personality. Further conflict is inevitable, especially over next year's Euro elections.

Up to now, Tory Euro candidates have been chosen by Euro constituencies, which have tended to be dominated by the Europhiles: no one else could be bothered to take part. The Eurosceptics occasionally take an interest: during the last Parliament, Peter Lilley used to say that it was time someone wrote a pamphlet entitled How and Why to Deselect Your Euro MP. …

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