Hague's parrot is not dead, he's just resting - with the odd squawk

IT CANNOT be very nice being William Hague. You wake up on the day of your up and at 'em conference speech to find on The Sun's front page a picture of yourself falling off a perch, bald head protruding from Norwegian Blue feathers and the headline message that the party you lead "has ceased to be ... it is an ex-party".

Hang on: isn't this the same newspaper which recently ran a front page picture of Tony Blair as the most dangerous man in Britain because of his stealthy slide into the single currency?

Along comes Mr Hague, ballots his party on the matter, wins generous support for his policy of staying out for 10 years - and gets coshed by the Eurosceptic Sun for his pains. Its lead columnist, fresh from the Mike Tyson academy of punditry, duly announces that he wants to "punch his face in".

Politics isn't fair. Mr Hague knows this. Vengeful EMU-philes to the left of him, fundamentalist Eurosceptic Ayatollahs to the right, Michael Portillo pouting seductively over his shoulder and every snide bully in the country on his back. Here he is: stuck in the middle of a nightmare. I shall go out and buy him one of those inflatable versions Edvard Munch's The Scream to put on his desk, just so he knows that he is not alone with this grief.

A lesser figure would have damned his stupid, stupid party to its own death-wish and walked back to a six figure salary and a civilized life at McKinsey's. But the blue parrot is a tough old breed which still has the odd squawk in it. Mr Hague's opening performance set out to prove that Conservatism is, in the immortal words of Michael Palin, "not dead: just resting". The same cannot be said of the long-running tragic Westminster farce, The Tories and Europe. What he called "the settled will of the party" can hardly be said to be overwhelming when only half of the members voted and EMU has not even been launched yet. The best that any Conservative leader can do is shore up support for his position in a sane and reasonable manner and then concentrate on other business.

John Major believed that his party was unleadable on Europe and so embraced defeat. Mr Hague believes that his only hope is to lead. It may not work. Too many senior Tories - on both sides of the argument - are aching for a Gotterdammerung. Their desire for a historic bonfire of destruction has not been matched since a deranged Hitler, warned in the final stages of the war that imperial Berlin would be destroyed in flames, is said to have responded: "But the conflagration will be beautiful." It might be too much for one man to stop a similar madness repeating itself in the Conservative and Unionist Party, but you have to give him credit for trying.

It is said that there are differences between Mr Hague and his shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, about how to conduct opposition, with Mr Maude anxious to spend more time presenting decisive alternative policies on health and education, so as to give at least the semblance of appearing ready to govern if, by some concatenation of unthinkables, the Conservatives should manage to win the next election.

Ann Widdecombe's defence of private contributions to health insurance was the first outright attack on the short-sighted New Labour policy which is adding to the NHS's burdens. A fetchingly re-coiffured, Miss Widdecombe shook, rattled and rolled her way through a Tina Turner of a performance. But just watching her reminded us of how little else the Tories presently have to offer. Other shadow ministers who should be attack-dogs have rolled over on their side and stare lifelessly out of their baskets. I don't know what Mr Hague can do about this except kick ass and promote the party's youngsters fast.

His own speech yesterday was woefully short on ideas with which to challenge New Labour's judiciously co-opting and refining of the best Tory tunes. When he moved on to his defence of fisherman, nurses and other ordinary folk allegedly at the rough end of New Britain, it was unclear what he was proposing to do that would make the slightest difference.

One grave mistake of the previous government was to reduce its judgements of success and failure to purely economic criteria. Its fixation on reducing the amount of state expenditure as a proportion of GDP left it blind to the quality of public services. Like a team of accountants, it was more interested in achieving numerical targets for provision than in what was being provided. Mr Hague has not quite thrown off these blinkers. Throughout his speech stalked obsessions with tax and demands for more self-reliance. But there was no sketch of a humane framework for this or even the blurry outline of a vision.

When he was on a roll, it was all too easy to imagine Tony Blair finishing his sentences for him. Here was Mr Hague supporting "the family which works hard and saves hard and tries to be independent of the state". That is a year after Mr Blair first gave his stamp of approval to "families who work hard and play by the rules". The traditional distinctions - maligning single parents and standing up for identikit nuclear families - are not those that the liberal Mr Hague wishes to indulge.

But the world's stock markets slide and the shrewder investors start looking for options to buy at the bottom of the market. So it is with the Conservatives. This must surely be their worst hour. Deep in its bones, New Labour, and Mr Blair in particular, has never underestimated the capability of the Tory party to do a Lazarus. Hence the decision to send Lord Jenkins off in search of a new voting system which, as one senior Cabinet minister put it to me, "Will make every vote count, provide a fairer, more representative system and stuff the Tories for good."

If recession does bite deeper into manufacturing and beyond next year, New Labour's breezy style and tendency to smugness, easily tolerated in good times, will begin to irritate. Hence Mr Hague's attempt to identify his party with straight talking. Like a sniper, he stares down a viewfinder at a distant and constantly shifting target. He can see his foe's open flanks, summarized yesterday as: "its croneys ... its PR hype and its Cool Britannia and its Third Way nonsense", but he can't quite find the right time to pull the trigger. Perhaps it has not come yet.

Steadily, Mr Hague is seeking to build up a picture of the Government as faddish, preening and self-obsessed. But he needs a big disaster to make these seem more than venal sins. A grinning joker still lurks within the pack and that, strange as it sounds, is EMU. Very soon, Mr Blair will have to emerge from the closet, declare openly that he is in favour of British entry early after the next election and prepare for a referendum.

From that point onwards, the reputation of his government will be entwined with the uncertain future of a highly risky and increasingly strained project. If the Prime Minister's gamble is right and EMU's first years are successful, he is home and dry for a second term. If it goes badly, his place on the uppermost perch of British politics is far from assured. In that case, Mr Hague will not look so bereft of life after all. Assuming, that is, that the birds of prey in his own party have not destroyed him on the way.

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