Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Personal, William. Just the Tories' Way with Their Leaders

Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Personal, William. Just the Tories' Way with Their Leaders

Article excerpt


A lot of Tories are now questioning the wisdom of holding the euro ballot. Mr Hague had hoped that it would reaffirm his authority and help to resolve the European issue, but at least in the short term it has undermined his authority and highlighted the party's divisions. But this does not mean that he was wrong to hold the ballot or, indeed, that he had anv alternative. It was not Mr Hague who started this euro dispute. That happened in January, in a letter to the Independent, in which many of the party's leading Europhiles effectively offered Mr Hague a choice between surrender or subversion. If he thought that he could fight the next election on a platform of opposition to a single currency, they warned him that he had better think again, or his position would be impossible.

From the point of view of Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and others, this was sound strategic judgment. These men have spent their entire political careers trying to build a united Europe by stealth, and the single currency is now their chosen instrument. Although they occasionally worry that Mr Blair is being overcautious, they broadly agree with his approach: of softening up public opinion without engaging in a serious debate; of trying to persuade the voters that a single currency is both inevitable and unthreatening. But, like Mr Blair, they recognise that there is only one obstacle in their way, only one force in British politics which could mount an effective campaign to save sterling: the Tory party. Now that they have lost all hope of ever regaining their ascendancy over that party, the Tory federalists have a choice. They can either allow Mr Hague to do his best to thwart their lifetimes' ambition, or they can do their best to thwart Mr Hague. They will choose the latter course, which means that the Tory party, if not split, is certainly splintered.

For at least a decade after 1846, most of the Peelites would have called themselves Conservatives. But they never again served in a Conservative government, and indeed tried to prevent any such government from being formed. Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine are now in a similar position.

At Blackpool last week, there was talk about candidates to become foreign secretary if- or when - Mr Blair sacks Mr Cook. Jack Straw was regarded as the strongest runner, though there were also nominations for George Robertson, Jack Cunningham, Peter Mandelson- and Ken Clarke. But there were two objections to Mr Clarke. The first was that his Euro-enthusiasm is so intense that he might bounce the government into showing its hand before Mr Blair was ready; the second was that he is far more useful to Labour by staying where he is. But by all objective criteria, Mr Clarke is now part of Mr Blair's coalition, as are Mr Heseltine and Lord Howe.

The comparison with 1846 will distress many Tories, who know that it took 28 years after the fall of Peel before the party next won an overall majority. But the case for Tory despair is vastly overstated, for two reasons. The first is that the Corn Laws and the single currency are a false analogy. Disraeli's Corn Law campaign was wholly meretricious; a mere vehicle for his ambition. As soon as he had displaced Peel, Disraeli began to repudiate all his Corn Law commitments. But the euro is a real question, which brings us to the second reason why Tories need not yet feel suicidal.

Most current political commentary is dominated by a false assumption: that we are now in a period of bourgeois consolidation, with no great issues to divide public opinion and therefore nothing to obstruct Mr Blair in his relentless quest for popularity. …

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