I have just received the latest edition of the Conservative History Journal from the Conservative History Group. There are quite a few articles which caught my eye, including one on the historical reputation of Neville Chamberlain (who, I am glad to see, is starting to at least slowly rise in the estimation of historians as shown by the most recent poll) and another brief peace on one of the traditions of Conservative foreign policy, a tradition of non-intervention, of scepticism of the benefits of playing the world policeman and a reluctance to pay huge taxes for ideological crusades. This strand is not dead by any means and can be found most recently amongst Conservative opponents of the Iraq War.
But the article that caught my eye the most is "No More than another Major?: How William Hague became Leader of the Conservative Party" by Timothy Heppell. It takes me, and no doubt many others, back to the gloomy days of the summer of 1997 when the party first sought to find the way forward after the general election. Heppell's account ignores some of the wider issues, such as the demands by the party membership for the franchise to be widened, and instead focuses upon the way in which the contest kept altering from expectations, with the original expected final match between Michaels Heseltine and Portillo being prevented by health and election defeat. Then the Michael Howard-Kenneth Clarke showdown was derailed by both William Hague backing out of an agreed ticket with Howard and Ann Widdecombe relighting old controversies. Amidst all this the right of the party saw its first ballot vote shredded across Howard, Peter Lilley and John Redwood, with none being able to unify it. Consequently William Hague emerged as the "Anyone But Clarke" candidate, and was elected albeit reluctantly by a parliamentary party that rejected the candidate with the most experience, the candidate most popular with the wider party, the candidate most popular with the voters and the candidate whom Labour feared the most. Margaret Thatcher endorsed him in the final stages, but with many doubts, and Hague lacked a strong position from the start.
In recent years it has become fashionable amongst some younger Conservatives to praise the Hague era as a time when the party was at least internally doing well and only suffering continued electoral unpopularity because of a hangover effect from the last Conservative government. In my experience most of these Conservatives either were not members at the time or tend to be at the non-realistic end of things. Hague himself was a reluctant leader who stood only after his first choice (Portillo) was unavailable and his second choice (Howard) appeared unwinnable. In his biography of William Pitt the Younger, Hague speculates that a major reason for Pitt's accepting the premiership at the age of just twenty-four and in the extremely unpromising circumstances of December 1783 was because it was an offer that was unlikely to come again for many years and even if he proved to be brief in office, he would have enhanced prestige in the long run and a potential return would be easier. It is not too hard to see a similar argument for Hague's own move in 1997.
And supposing for a moment that Hague had stuck to his original agreement to support Howard's leadership bid, with the deputy leadership and party chairmanship to come? The party chairmanship has at times proved to be a poisoned chalice, but a Howard-Hague ticket would have been in a much stronger position to first defeat Lilley and Redwood in the battle on the right in the first ballot, (then accumulate enough support to knock out Stephen Dorrell on the second ballot if his candidacy had continued) and finally face off Clarke in the showdown. Of all the ABC candidates, Howard came closest to matching Clarke in terms of experience and making Labour scared. The intervention by Ann Widdecombe could well have been seen off by a stronger campaign team. But would Howard have been able to beat Clarke on a final ballot? Heppell isn't sure, pointing to the weakening effects of poor polling and ambivalent support from key backers who were would-be Portillo supporters. I am more inclined to think it would have happened. Most of the weaknesses suffered by Howard also applied to Hague and they did not stop him. Howard would also have brought a sense of gravitas to the leadership.
But in reality the result was that the party spent over six years limping around, with internal feuds that no-one can really remember the supposed policy reasons for now (just what was the dissent between Widdecombe and Portillo's followers about?), with little sense of direction and with leaders who, for all their strong characteristics (and Iain Duncan Smith's championing of social reform remains to this day one of the most radical moves by a Conservative leader in recent times) were unable to take the party anywhere. And then in 2003 the parliamentary party went and elected Michael Howard as leader. He served largely as a caretaker whilst rebuilding the party and finally taking it forward at his only general election. One can only help but wonder what might have happened if he'd had four years instead of eighteen months and got the party to that position in 2001...