Magazine article The Spectator

When Great Questions Arise, Party Management Becomes Irrelevant

Magazine article The Spectator

When Great Questions Arise, Party Management Becomes Irrelevant

Article excerpt

William Hague's decision to poll his party on Europe was popular with Eurosceptics; in most other quarters, it aroused widespread dismay. Over the past couple of days, though more by accident than by design, Chris Patten has emerged as the principal spokesman for the dismayed tendency. Mr Patten had arranged lots of interviews to publicise his new book. He had expected to talk about Asia; instead, most of the attention has been on Europe - which does not mean that a book launch has turned into a leadership bid.

As is apparent from his comments on Europe, Mr Patten has become psychologically detached from British politics, and especially from Tory politics. Even if he decided to return to Westminster, he would face formidable obstacles. He was asked what he would do if offered a seat with a 20,000 majority, but although Mr Patten was too polite to say so, that is not how the Tory party works. Seats are not offered, they have to be fought for, in front of constituency associations who are fierce guardians of their democratic prerogatives and whose decisions are always unpredictable. If Professor Heisenberg had known about the Tory party, he need not have based his uncertainty principle on the erratic behaviour of certain subatomic particles; he could have used Tory selection committees.

In the 1966 election, Peter Thorneycroft lost his seat. He had been chancellor of the exchequer and minister of defence; his wife, Carla, was one of the most elegant political wives in London. The then Mr Thorneycroft decided that he would like to return to the Commons, so he applied for a seat in Devon, and reached the last four; he was so much stronger than the other three that his selection seemed a formality. But there was no formality. Peter Thorneycroft was bully-ragged by truculent association members, who tried to blame him for the Macmillan/Home governments' failures, while their wives asked Carla Thorneycroft if she knew how to entertain. On their way back to London, the Thorneycrofts stayed with friends. They arrived traumatised. `We're not going through that again, Peter,' insisted Carla. `Don't worry, darling: never again. I shall take a peerage,' replied the soon-to-be Lord Thorneycroft.

Chris and Lavender Patten are younger and more resilient than the Thorneycrofts were, but the Conservative party is even less deferential, while most constituency associations also have an implacable Eurosceptic minority - in many cases a majority -- which might well do everything it could to stop Chris Patten. His task would not be impossible, merely difficult, but would he really have the stomach to schlep round England, wrangling with Eurosceptics? Apropos of stomachs, Mr Patten would enjoy Brussels, and not only the cuisine. He would be well suited to the life of a Euro-commissioner, and is easily young enough to do that for a few years before becoming an Oxbridge Head of House. In the meantime, however, he will continue to contribute to the Euro-debate, no doubt with the same dubious arguments which he has deployed this week.

Mr Patten thinks that Mr Hague was doubly mistaken. Not only has he treated the single currency question as if it were solely a matter of party management, but in so doing he has made it harder to manage his party. There is no point in arguing about the euro: its fate, and ours, are in the hands of the markets. If it works, we will have to join, and as Mr Patten thinks that it probably will work, he believes that eventual British membership is virtually inevitable. …

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