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Gary Younge
Tory policy seems to be based on the Telegraph letters page

Major John Cann from Ascot agrees. In a letter published the same day he argues: "In the majority of the animal world the male species protects the female species, and in the army in the frontline this is bound to apply."

For those of us who are incapable of living our lives according to the laws of nature there is still hope, writes John Capel from Usk, on the subject of "homosexual temptations". "For Christians," he writes, "the important distinction is whether or not the individual is acknowledging the weaknesses, repenting of the failures and seeking to amend."

Writing to the Telegraph after shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, suggested the Tories might one day have a gay leader, he states: "Of course the liberal intelligentsia claim 'being gay' is not wrong, but most of us know that it is."

Just below, Pastor Ken Slater is preparing the stable boys for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. After a quote from The Revelation of St John the Divine comes the omen: "Sexual deviation is a mark on the spiritual barometer which indicates that stormy days are ahead."

Britain, according to the Telegraph letters page, is indeed a scary place. When it comes to gender politics and sexual orientation its postbag reads like an unholy alliance between Eminem and the squires from the shires.

To be fair there is occasional dissent - the day after the page had been transformed into a homophobic pamphlet, there were several pleas for sanity. But for the most part it is a land where men are chaps, women are ladies and Maude is a liberal. It is as though the past 50 years never happened. Like an afternoon watching reruns on UK Gold, you are left with the peculiar sense that the past and the present run not consecutively but concurrently.

Confined to the Telegraph letters page all of this would represent little more than an everyday tale of ordinary, rightwing, letter-writing folk - a group of people for whom, like their leftwing counterparts, conviction and obsession are close bedfellows. But it does not stop there. These views are a fairly accurate reflection not only of Telegraph readers but Tory leaders. It is an expression of impotent rage that the world is not how it should be with no accompanying notion of how it might be improved.

They hate the Macpherson report, but have no suggestions for restoring confidence in policing; they revile the Northern Ireland peace process, but offer no alternative. They not only mythologise the past and loathe the present but refuse to even contemplate the future.

It is a mindset which Hague at first appeared keen to challenge. His appearance at Notting Hill carnival in his baseball cap was the first sign, albeit a cheesy one, that he wanted to shift the perception, if not the direction, of his party. He spoke of "compassion" and "inclusivity", brought gay, Eurosceptic businessman Ivan Massow into the spotlight, and looked forward to a time when his party would have a black or Asian leader.

But gradually it all started to unravel. When he wasn't demonising homosexuality in debates over section 28, he was targetting asylum seekers and upsetting the grieving parents of Damilola Taylor, with outbursts of racist opportunism.

While his remarks provoked predictable rage from liberals they also began to alienate some of his own side. Massow defected to Labour. Through his senior aide Steve Norris, the Tory mayoral candidate for London, said that he felt "increasingly detached" from the "rather unpleasant core" of the party. Last month Lord Archer (remember him?) de scribed his former party as one which "would give blacks and Asians a 'pat on the head' but not invite them into their homes"

Labour should take some of the credit for this mayhem. By lowering the age of consent for gay men, launching the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death and passing anti-discrimination legislation, they helped reshape the discourse on equality and minority rights. With an election imminent and the prospect of Tory victory distant, Hague sensed an opportunity to rally his own troops around the fear of change.

In the short term this is less reckless a strategy than it looks. Nobody expects Hague to win, just to put a serious dent in Labour's lead. Given that more than a third of Labour's majority comprises seats held by less than 5,000 votes, Hague could do it - particularly if he motivates his base and Labour voters stay at home. In crude electoral terms he may be right; in moral terms he is simply crude.

But while there is an immediate market for the brand of Powellite rhetoric Hague has been dabbling in of late, there is not a political future in it for a party that needs to reclaim the centre-right in order to return to office.

The average age of a Tory member is over 60, and now that the membership elect the leadership it actually matters what they think. If Hague wants his party to sound, look and act like it has plans for the century we have just entered rather than the one we left behind, he will have to tell it things it does not want to hear. The more he galvanises his traditional base, the more he ostracises potential support. That leaves the Tories in a similar place today with public and private morality that Labour were in with the economy during the early 80s - in a hole, in fact. The deeper they get the more furiously they dig.

The tragedy is that whereas Thatcher was proud of her market credentials, New Labour appears embarrassed by its professed commitment to equality. Instead of looking down on Tory scapegoating as an act of desperation, they keep getting down in the muck with them; unleashing bull dogs onto party political broadcasts, vilifying asylum seekers and trumpeting family values.

Moral bankruptcy aside, there are two principal problems with this. First, the Tories will always make better bigots than Labour. They have had more practice and have fewer qualms of conscience. So when Labour propose vouchers and dispersal for asylum seekers, the Conservatives do not retreat but advance with the promise of mass detentions. Second, it is off message. A party which simultaneously prides itself on modernisation cannot simultaneously mourn the passing of the good old days with either consistency or credibility.

So let Hague lead the Telegraph's admirals on the Battleship Nostalgia. It is heading for rocks. If Labour do not have the confidence to sink it, the least they could do is not follow it.

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