Sunday, October 01, 2006


The Tories – Just a Blip, or Self-Destructing?

The opinion polls haven’t given a happy start to the Tory Conference, with their temporary lead over Labour gone and Mr Cameron’s popularity falling sharply. It seems that, after a full year of Mr Cameron’s spin that nice noises are enough, people have noticed he has no policies and there’s no substance to him at all. However, I don’t think much of polls, so what about the substance? Well, that’s even less cheering for the Conservatives, because there really isn’t any there at all, and as a result Mr William Hague has just self-destructed messily on The World This Weekend. You can ‘Listen Again’ to it for the next week. Is this just a bad day, or are they starting to lose it? When your Leader’s faffed around doing nothing of substance all year but increase your opinion poll ratings slightly, and then the opinion polls sink like an overdone soufflé, it can’t leave you feeling exactly chuffed.

I always thought Mr Hague was one of the cleverest performers in the Tory Party. He’s not as smooth a spin merchant as Mr Cameron, but he does much better under a demanding interview. If I were in charge of the Tory Party (gets out garlic), I’d put up Mr Hague in preference to Mr Cameron if something more than a slick soundbite is required; while there’s nothing but hot air inside Mr Cameron, Mr Hague has quite a clever brain and can answer the questions. I usually disagree with the answers he gives, of course, but at least his answers sound like they have some substance to them.

Hearing Mr Hague get into such a panic and fall apart under pressure was quite a shock – I suspect even he’s finding it difficult to work with Mr Cameron’s likeable but vacuous nothings any more. After all, it has been a full year of Mr Cameron with nothing to show for it, so Mr Hague must wish he had even some of his old, unpopular policies to cling to rather than be sent naked into the interview studio. Mr Hague, of course, was Welsh Secretary in the fatally split Conservative Government of the 1990s, where he took over from John Redwood; Mr Redwood has been in the news today calling for the Conservatives to promise tax cuts, and it’s obvious Mr Hague would be happier doing the same. We all know that’s what Mr Hague used to say back when he was Conservative Leader, and it’s what both of them actually believe – slash public services, cut taxes and do what Tories like to do. Instead, he has to go on the radio and say that he believes people are probably being taxed too much… But he can’t say what, if anything, he wants do about it. Not much to go on, is it? No wonder he sounded so fed up. If Tories as important as their Shadow Foreign Secretary and once (and future?) Leader are getting restive, what must morale be like with the membership? Good job they don’t get to vote on policy. Even if there was any policy to vote on.

If you listen again to today’s The World This Weekend, you’ll hear senior Conservative George Walden criticising them for being run entirely by a ‘social elite’, with the Shadow Cabinet being more socially exclusive than at any time since the 1960s – certainly not the ‘Cabinet of the talents’ that Mrs Thatcher formed when she came to power. Did you know that just five of Mr Cameron’s top team went to comprehensive schools? More than that went to Eton alone! Out of nearly two dozen people in the Conservatives’ Shadow Cabinet, fewer than half a dozen were educated the way 90% of the population are. You can see why Mr Walden was a bit worried that the Conservatives have turned their backs on listening to ordinary people, can’t you?

Putting Mr Hague on to be interviewed was exactly the right move. Not only is he clever enough to think on his feet, but he’s one of the less-than-a-quarter who didn’t go to a top private school. Shaun Ley knows his stuff, but he’s not a Paxman-style interrogator; if he’s given a solid answer, he tends not to fight and fight to tear it to pieces. Mr Ley’s very good at putting you at your ease, though, which I reckon is a more effective interview technique than constant aggression. I thought Mr Hague started very well by using his own experience to laugh off the ‘social elite’ charge. ‘Ask him a follow-up about all the others!’ I was thinking, but no, Mr Hague got away with that one rather well. I thought the interview was going to be a good moment for the Tories. And then Mr Ley asked about tax…

Now, like Mr Hague, I’ve done an extended interview with Mr Ley for The World This Weekend, in my case a fortnight ago, and like Mr Hague I was asked about my party’s tax plans. The new Liberal Democrat tax plans are well-thought-out to make a green tax switch from taxing people to taxing pollution, but complicated enough in the detail to make them easy to attack. I know – we hadn’t passed them at the time, and when I was interviewed I came up with several of the attacks I thought our opponents would make, and how I’d counter them (if you’re a Conservative and want to hear them, sorry, but the ‘Listen Again’ feature only works for a week). And it’s easy enough for a Tory with a brain to defend against charges they have no policies – they want to think about them carefully and get them right, not come out with a constant stream of gimmicky laws that turn out to be rubbish and have to be changed, like Labour do. Easy, isn’t it? So if he couldn’t even come up with an answer that obvious, but only get shirty instead, what conclusion can you draw other than that Mr Hague is so fed up with the lack of substance he’s supposed to sound excited by that he’s not bothering to try any more. I don’t blame him. I couldn’t sound enthusiastic about having nothing to say, either.

Why else did Mr Hague fall to pieces when he was asked why they didn’t have any policies, and why if he thought people were taxed too much he couldn’t say he wanted tax cuts? He started to talk about possible green taxes, but he couldn’t say what, and “sharing the proceeds of growth,” the very words dismissed by Ming Campbell a week ago as “a slogan, not a policy”. As a recent satirical video has suggested, Mr Cameron’s hot air won’t fix climate change. Mr Ley pressed Mr Hague for details: the Liberal Democrats, he said, thought ordinary working people were taxed too much, so they had specific green taxes they wanted to raise, and they’d use the money to cut income tax. Why couldn’t the Tories just say the same?

But all Mr Hague could do was sound flustered, panicky and cross, twice more try and say “sharing the proceeds of growth,” and he couldn’t find anything he disagreed with in the Lib Dem tax policies. I mean, I can come up with an attack on our policies, and with no Lib Dem on the programme to defend them, Mr Hague had an open goal – but scored straight into his own net. What was the only irritable answer he had to the Lib Dem tax cuts? That we weren’t going to win. He couldn’t disagree with a word of them. He was so petulant about it that it was obvious he must be upset he can’t have any tax-cutting policies like ours, or any policies to offer at all.

If that’s the best you can do, Mr Hague, your party isn’t going to win, either.

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