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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 13:41 GMT
Dead sheep talking
Lord Howe of Aberavon is one of those Conservatives for whom the Tory Party is undoubtedly a less comfortable place than it used to be.
Like a number of Conservative heavyweights who came to public prominence during the Thatcher years - Ken Clarke, Chris Patten, Lords Heseltine and Hurd - his one nation, pro-European leanings go against the grain of today's Tories.
Take, for example, William Hague's recent sacking of London spokesman Shaun Woodward for his opposition to the party line on repealing Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.
Woodward, a director of the charity Childline, argued that the law prohibiting the "promotion" of homosexuality or teaching of its "acceptability as a pretend family relationship" by education authorities should be scrapped because of its contribution to harassment and bullying within schools.
For Howe, whose early political activities focused on social reform, the episode betrays confusion in the Tories' search for a more voter-friendly identity.
"There is, it seems to me, an inconsistency in William Hague's positioning of himself, if you go back to his initial presentation emphasising the need to be an inclusive party," he says.
Stuck with a soundbite
Denis Healey once famously compared being attacked by Howe to being "savaged by a dead sheep". It's a line that Howe will never shake off, though he proved it misplaced with his resignation from government 1990.
Howe was the longest survivor of Margaret Thatcher's original 1979 cabinet. Having spent the 1980s at the height of his political influence, the issue of Europe finally led him to decide he had to go at their end.
Howe's resignation speech in the Commons is generally credited with starting the immediate chain of events that culminated in the next departure from cabinet being that of the prime minister herself.
But at the end of the 1990s Europe is still the issue that vexes him most about his own party. Comparisons between the state of the Conservative Party today and Labour in the early 1980s can be overdone, Howe believes. But he sees similarities of which the Tories should beware.
"They are stuck, I think, with a wrong key position on foreign policy. A three-word soundbite, 'Ban the bomb' or 'Save the pound', echoes through both decades, and that's a pity," he says.
But any extremism, according to Howe, is largely confined to just the single issue.
"I don't think that the Tory Party has moved so far away from the centre ground on other issues," he says. "It's the European one, whereas Labour moved into loony left positions on almost everything in sight."
He does also worry, however, that Conservatives in the Commons have lost touch with the party at large: "On the other hand, I think it's a little disconcerting that I suspect the Tory parliamentary party is further away from the centre than the Tory Party in the country, whereas in the Labour Party the shrunken constituency parties were the tail wagging the loony left dog, so to speak."
Hague 'at risk' if he loses
The return to the Commons of Michael Portillo, darling of the Tory right and Lady Thatcher, has sparked renewed speculation about plots against Hague and plots by Hagueites to bind the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea into the current leadership.
Would Howe echo Michael Heseltine's barbed comment on Portillo's re-election, that Hague was safe for the duration of this parliament - with the unspoken caveat that as soon as the next election was out of the way the Portillistas would come for him?
"I don't think he was saying that," insists Howe. But he acknowledges the long Tory tradition of brutal despatch of the party's leaders. "The fact of the reality is that if William loses the forthcoming election, then like any leader of any party, he's that much closer to being challenged by somebody.
"Neil Kinnock was allowed to lose two elections, wasn't he? But many Conservative leaders have been allowed to lose only one. John Major won one and lost one.
"I don't say if William doesn't win the next general election he'll be challenged, but if he clearly fails to achieve substantial headway, then he's more at risk than he is now."
As for Portillo, Howe welcomes his return to Parliament as adding "another strong player to the parliamentary team, which frankly it badly needs".
Howe is a supporter of Britain in Europe, the campaign founded to promote the case for UK entry into the single European currency. Before the 1997 election he issued warnings to his party to resist taking too Eurosceptic a path. He has been disappointed since then, and not only by his own party.
Howe shares the frustrations of fellow pro-Europeans from across the political spectrum who had hoped for a more positive lead on the single currency from the prime minister.
Instead, Blair's euro policy is one of ultra-caution, opting not to argue against anti-euro popular opinion rather than take more of a lead in making the case for the euro.
"I do think that, if you have decided as he said he has, that all the issues in principle in favour of the single currency have been decided, it's only now the fulfilment of economic conditions that he awaits, certain things follow," begins Howe.
"You need to go on arguing all the time the case in principle. People say 'Why, you're so far away from fulfilling your conditions - why do you think this is right?' You have to come back to it all the time, and he is unwilling to do that."
'Come along, Tony'
But the government has trapped itself in a Catch 22. Blair doesn't want to hold a referendum on joining the euro until he is sure he is going to win it. Yet his deep reluctance to publicly campaign for it the euro the face of public antipathy may well lessen the chances of winning it.
Much more vocal and prominent support for the prime minister's sotto voce aim of signing up to the single currency has come from an advance guard of Conservative former cabinet ministers - Howe, Clarke, Heseltine, Patten, Leon Brittan - than from Blair himself.
"Well, it's a strange thing for a Conservative to be saying, because why should I say this about a Labour prime minister, but he needs to manifest the courage of his convictions," declares Howe.
"I said, when he made his original move towards the euro, that he had crossed the Rubicon, and I'm sure that in his own mind he has - why else would he be saying that the principle is right?"
But a feeling of having been being let down has followed. "You don't cross the Rubicon and then stand hesitantly on the other side saying 'Come on, chaps - it should be okay'. You argue the case for establishing a bridgehead and enlarging it on the other side of the Rubicon, and for some reason he hasn't accepted that."
It's no good Blair relying on Tory pro-Europeans to make the argument on his behalf, insists Howe: "We can't do it do it for him. [Although] I'm not going to give up arguing the case, because I happen to believe that it's right in the national interest, and so do people like Ken Clarke. So, come along, Tony."
Another subject Howe has been considering in depth of late is reform of the House of Lords. Howe, who has made a submission to the Royal Commission on longer-term Lords reform, suspects Blair hasn't thought or planned properly about the timing of changes to the second chamber beyond the removal of most hereditary peers.
"I don't think he has the faintest idea, honestly," he says. "One of my regrets is that we didn't ourselves when we were in office in the 1980s bring forward our own cautious approach to reform of the Lords . . . I think we were probably in our hubristic state at that time - thought we didn't need it."
Howe himself has come out in favour of an appointed Lords. His view has been confirmed by the chaotic shambles, in both Labour and the Tories, over selecting a London mayoral candidate.
"Is it not extraordinary how difficult both parties are finding it to find candidates for this position?" Howe marvels. "Now there's a kind of barrel-scraping exercise, and the same took place for the leadership of the Welsh Assembly.
"I think that actually illustrates a more worrying thing, and that is a progressive disregard and as-yet unrealised decline in respect for salaried full-time elected politicians, particularly if they then couch their positions in terms of short, compact soundbite policies. That's one of the reasons why I'm worried, without being conclusive about it, about the proposal to simply elect people to the House of Lords."
For Howe, the increasingly professionalisation of politics, with fewer and fewer MPs having had a career in any other field, rules out an elected Lords.
"If I felt that election would bridge that gap I wouldn't be opposed to it. But my fear is you would find reproduced in the Lords a chunk of people arriving as pager-driven - particularly if chosen on a party list - as in the Commons, which they're meant to be challenging.
"The alternative of course of saying we need to have a commission of extraordinarily wise creatures who can select this amazing talent that the Lords used to produce is not all that easy to believe," he acknowledges.
"But," he adds with a laugh, "it may be the best of a not very good choice."
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