IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

A year after winning the Conservative Party leadership, William Hague this week introduced a new Shadow Cabinet team. But, as Peter Stanford discovers, it may take more than a few new faces to bring the Tories back to power

THE BIGWIGS among Hastings' local Conservatives are gathering for their weekly meeting in a bland first-floor office above an estate agents' shop on a road off the seafront. William Hague smiles out from the mantelpiece at the assembled group, alongside what looks like a publicity mug-shot of a Sixties' television presenter but turns out to be a dated snap of the obscure and soon-to-retire local Euro MP.

Between the two faces there is a gap where, for as long as anyone can remember, the local MP's picture used to stand, gathering dust. For in May of last year the Tories' divine right to the South Coast seat of Hastings and Rye was rudely abolished by voters. While in the neighbouring constituencies of Bexhill, Folkestone and Eastbourne, the Conservatives - including Michael Howard - hung on, the sitting member for Hastings, Jacqui Lait, was swept away in an 18.5 per cent swing to Labour.

You might imagine that it has been a traumatic year for Mrs Lait's inner circle, especially since the dumped MP herself has since added insult to injury by decamping to take over the vacant safe seat at Beckenham, in a by-election caused by the frolics of one Piers Merchant. At the very least I expected to find a little soul-searching, but no, the Hastings team is in blithe good spirits.

With William Hague this week celebrating his first anniversary in office by reshuffling his front-bench team, the Hastings high command is confident that the tide is now turning their way and that in four years they'll have their MP back - along with 10 Downing Street. They are cheered by the prospect next month of Hague's nationwide "Listening to Britain" tour, a massive mea culpa designed to reconnect the Tories with the electorate. No matter that Hague has been dubbed "the invisible man" or that dummy runs for "Listening to Britain" drew paltry audiences. This group on the South Coast apparently possesses the sort of unblinking optimism usually found in religious cults or Third Division football managers.

Perhaps there is exceptional local evidence, I ask tentatively, that explains their confidence? They sigh, in a way reminiscent of an exasperated parent about to outline the rules of Monopoly to a difficult offspring one more time. First there is the arrival of a bright new constituency agent in 23-year-old Jessica Dumbrell, whose credentials so far include keeping the general election swing against the Tories in the Labour-held Southampton Test seat at a level below the national average. Then there was a sniff of victory in the May council elections, when the Conservatives won back one seat on the 30-odd-strong body.

There is also a great deal of thinly veiled delight at the sight of the Labour-dominated council getting in a stew over whether the Mayor of Hastings, a town whose inhabitants are proud of its history, should wear the traditional fur-trimmed robes. This little local difficulty is part of the reason, Hastings' Tories believe, for the slow trickle of prodigal sons and daughters now rejoining their 400-strong association.

For me, it doesn't quite add up to an overwhelming case, but in this company the jury decided long ago. "We were very low for a while," admits vice-chairman Cynthia Jones, a gentle woman in her sixties with firmly held convictions. "People were saying on the doorsteps, 'Oh, we're sick of you lot, we want a change' - and that certainly was dispiriting. But now it's wearing off and they are beginning to listen to us again."

She pauses, as if fearful that a note of doubt may have crept into her voice. "We still have fences to mend, but it's not the big task it is sometimes portrayed as. I remember between 1945 and 1950 they said the Conservatives were finished. We came back then in five years, and we will again now."

So here is a hint that Hastings' Tories are not all quite as confident as they appear, but Cynthia Jones ends on an up note, and her colleagues, most of them old enough to remember Winston Churchill's return to power, nod in appreciation. The one youngster, Jessica Dumbrell, adds her endorsement to this upbeat assessment. She was a volunteer at the Dudley West by-election in 1994, and says that the "hatred and aggression" which she encountered against Conservatives on the streets is now receding. "Once that goes, people will start listening to our ideas again. It is all a question of time."

They are all such nice, sincere people that it seems almost sinful to inject a sour note, but this assumption that the Labour landslide was a blip and that all the Tories need to do is sit back and wait for British voters to come to their senses sits uncomfortably with current indicators. Labour's record showing in the polls might just about be dismissed as the longest honeymoon in political memory, but a Mori survey, published on the morning of my visit to Hastings, which reveals William Hague's personal rating among Tories as dropping sharply - from minus 15 to minus 25, whatever that means - ought surely to cause at least a hot flush. But such polls are dismissed, along with the newspapers that publish them.

"Oh, Rupert Murdoch's newspapers are all in favour of Blair come what may," says Don McConnell, the local chairman. "When our chaps go off the rails, the press call it sleaze. When it's a Labour man, then it's a misdemeanour."

He blows out his cheeks in exasperation. Even the local weekly Hastings Observer is biased, he claims. "It took five phone calls from one of our local-council candidates to get a letter published."

Isn't it, I venture, too easy to blame everything on the media? Perhaps the broadcasters are reflecting the public attitude to Conservatives? "The public perception when I've been out canvassing is that the Opposition is on holiday," confirms Anne Bird, another vice-chairman. "But again it comes down to the Government getting all the media attention. We don't get a look in."

Minds are clearly made up on this issue and blame has been apportioned, so I try another approach: what about the disarray caused when the Tory top-table attempts to make positive headlines? What about, for instance, John Maples's recent attack on the alleged breaking of a Labour manifesto pledge not to close hospitals? He listed 101 examples of where that promise was being ignored, including one at Rye in the Hastings constituency. The trust that manages the hospital responded with a press release stating that it was the previous Conservative government which earmarked it for closure. How did the Hastings Tories feel about such a gaffe?

"Well, it didn't help," admits the treasurer, Pat Munro, a recent returnee from exile in Spain. "But I suppose the initiative itself was a good one." He doesn't sound convinced. Again there is the suggestion of doubt beneath the gung-ho.

"I think the problem," chips in Lady (Janet) Fookes, the retired Deputy Speaker of the Commons and president of the local association, "is that our shadow ministers have got too used to having a team of civil servants to check their facts. Now they have no one. Getting things wrong is part of getting used to opposition."

Getting things wrong, though, also carries the risk of leaving you as a long-term opposition. Even if the Hastings Tories do not want publicly to face this possibility, Labour's own example in the Eighties and early Nineties demonstrates how slow a party can be to comprehend the depth and nature of an electorate's displeasure, the extent of the changes needed to win back trust. While the Tories are still a long way from the factionalism and disarray of the dark days of Michael Foot - they have not, for instance, seen the equivalent of a Council for Social Democracy yet - the divisive leadership battle of a year ago, Hague's hard-line stance on Europe and the subsequent sniping at him by senior figures on the left of the party (Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan among others) should be ringing alarm bells. In Hastings it appears they are not. Or, at least, if they are, no one seems to be listening.

LIKE ALL other local associations, Hastings will henceforth be subject to greater control from Tory headquarters, thanks to the reforms that William Hague pushed through with almost no opposition during his first year in charge. So little upset did they cause, indeed, that his camp was said to be rather disappointed. If he had been faced with more of a struggle, he could have appeared the strong, determined leader in the Blair mould, able to rule his own dissidents with a firm hand.

Failing to detect anything other than a glib but thin optimism in Hastings, I decided to continue my investigations into how the Tories are shaping up to opposition by heading for Central Office, the party's politburo and now Hague's base.

Two images stuck in my mind as I walked towards the grandiloquent and rather squat fortress that houses Central Office. One was of Margaret Thatcher, at the height of her powers, leaning out from the windows now above me to give a victory wave after the 1983 general election. The other, more recent, was of John Major, at his most decent and likeable, sweeping in early one May morning to commiserate with his defeated troops.

The two pictures marked the high and low points of the Tories' 18 years in power. That both were taken, as if by some pre-ordained ritual, at this unimpressive office block was no mere bureaucratic accident. The Conservative Party has come to regard Central Office as the institution that gives it unity and coherence.

On the second floor you now find the first of a number of practical innovations which alert visitors to the fact that, despite his outward confidence, Hague is taking seriously siren voices predicting that his party could disappear into the history books. The Political Operations Department is a hybrid created by crossing the press office with parts of the research department, a rebuttals unit and the leader's personal advisers. "I know it's an unwieldy name, but it's the best we could come up with," says Andrew Cooper, its director since its inauguration last September. "We wanted a new name to signify a new approach, a change of culture and a change of process."

Previously - as Cooper admits - the press office and the research department had worked to separate and occasionally conflicting agendas. "There was certainly little contact and even some animosity" - another aspect of the disunity that cost the Conservatives so dear at the last election.

Now, Cooper's well-oiled empire bounces into life at around 7am each morning, sampling the papers, working with shadow spokesmen to generate news stories, putting forward Tory "names" to face Labour ministers on TV and radio, circulating rebuttal sheets of every claim made by Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time, organising focus groups, and eventually winding up its working day at around 10pm.

Cooper is a graduate of the right-wing Social Market Foundation think- tank and, at 34, one of the oldest members of the distinctly youthful crew in the department. He likes to describe his domain as being modelled on the "War Room" of advisers and spin doctors that successfully delivered victory to Bill Clinton in 1993. "You know, where they had 'It's the economy, stupid' in big letters on the wall." But what is unavoidable is the similarity between the set-up Cooper heads and Peter Mandelson's Millbank mission to convert Middle England.

"Well, yes," Cooper says, in a rather grudging fashion - and I begin to notice how much this big, balding man shuffles in his chair and expends nervous energy by playing with whatever is to hand. "Labour ran a very effective campaign and we would be silly not to look at that and learn some lessons. But what I couldn't do, wouldn't do, and indeed what most of us here would genuinely recoil from doing, would be to imitate the robotic way that Labour works its MPs."

Cooper's team are certainly more open in their doubts than the grandees of Hastings. Edwina Thomas, a 25-year-old blonde with just a hint of the young Virginia Bottomley about her, deals with media requests for interviews with Shadow Cabinet members. Or rather she tries to generate some requests. "Even when the broadcasters do agree to hear our point of view, they often end up cutting out the Conservative spokesman and leaving in the Liberal Democrat. They just don't want to hear from us. After 18 years in government they are sick of us. So we have got a job on our hands to change that culture. It took Labour years to get used to being in opposition and turn it to their advantage. We're just starting to learn."

Such essentially practical problems are the focus of the energy and passion so evident in this key branch of the new Central Office regime. Elsewhere in the building radicalism is channelled in the same pragmatic direction - reorganise the party, rebuild bridges with business, sort out the annual conference, silence the mavericks, win back the press, get as slick as Labour at spin.

But hovering behind such technical skills you sense a vacuum where policy should be. Harnessing part of the research department - traditionally a prime generator of new ideas - to the more immediate needs of presentation is just one sign. The assumption seems to be that if you get the packaging right, all will be well.

To be fair, Cooper is fond of quoting his colleague Alan Duncan - one of Hague's closest lieutenants and now a junior spokesman on health - to the effect that the party has to stop focusing on the devastation "and design a skyscraper on the bombsite". Perhaps Peter Lilley's recent move to become Deputy Leader in charge of policy will turn such bold words into discussion papers, but at present strategy is wholly reactive. React to the electorate, react to Labour, react to events, and, most importantly, wait and see.

Of course, it's a strategy which, following Labour's example in the 1990s, is tried and trusted. But so far there is not even so much as a general principle or a new buzzword to motivate the troops in the field, no big idea to excite activists and give them a sense of shaking off the past and finding a new direction. When I mention this absence to Cooper, he uses words like free markets, freedom, opportunity and choice - all of which have been with us since 1979. What is new is his talk of "changing our body language".

"Our research has shown that the pre-election Tories were seen as arrogant, divided, conceited and selfish," Cooper explains. "So if you think about it there was no policy reason why we lost. It was Conservatives who were thrown out of office not Conservatism." So, the logic goes, if it ain't broke, don't mend it, just put it in a new box. Make Conservatives look voter-friendly again by updating the presentation, and Conservatism will re-emerge from under a cloud.

THE CONSERVATIVES belated conversion to the joys of spin is causing some anxiety in the upper echelons of the party - but there, as elsewhere, there remains an overriding desire to give young William a chance to prove himself. Francis (Lord) Pym, the 76-year-old former Foreign Secretary and veteran of various periods in opposition under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, is concerned that in mimicking Labour's success with presentation, the Conservatives may be in danger of under-estimating their natural constituency, voters who deserted them in 1997 and who must now be persuaded to return.

"I'm uncomfortable with the idea that you counter manipulation with manipulation. My experience of our electorate has always been that, faced with a Labour government, they were very sensible. Labour tried to tell them that black was white, but they knew it was black. We have to concentrate on that message."

While he accepts the need for some sound-bites and has a healthy respect for the power of newspapers and the broadcast media to affect a party's image, his instinct is that both run the risk of cutting politicians off from voters. "I remember when I was Defence Secretary at the height of the nuclear-disarmament debate and I used to make sure that every six weeks or so I would make a speech of 50 minutes or so of some substance, setting out arguments that were coherent and well thought-out. Of course, it ended up as a soundbite in the papers, but I think it gets across to the electorate in a curious way. They recognise reason and thought behind policies and I believe increasingly they will recognise their absence."

Pym sees the current rush to copy Labour techniques as part of a widespread undercurrent of impatience within a party that has yet to recover the knack of tolerating divergence of opinion within the ranks. "William Hague strikes me as a patient chap, unaffected by short-term indicators, but there are too many among us who have grown used to immediate results. I think we have to take account of the scale of our defeat and the scale of social change and realise that it may take a long time to revive and rebuild our party in the current climate."

A self-confessed "dinosaur", Pym's warning may be dismissed by Central Office as being of little consequence, but it is echoed by a figure very much of the moment, the robust and popular Ann Widdecombe, a recent recruit to Hague's Shadow Cabinet. "I'm very sceptical about the long-term viability of spin. You may spin a party into victory, but spin won't keep it there. Soon the electorate will cry out, no more spinning; so we would not be wise to ape Mandelson. Of course presentation is important, but it is the substance that counts."

Widdecombe - a hard-hitter drafted in to strengthen an Opposition front bench memorably described by one former MP as being too weak to knock the skin off a rice pudding - is more defensive, though, on the lack of new policies. "We have to avoid like the plague locking ourselves into a huge and costly agenda of alternative policies, copying Neil Kinnock's example when in opposition. Come to think of it," she snorts, "we must at all costs avoid ending up like him."

A woman valued by the public for her honesty not her dress sense, she presents an interesting angle on the anguished cry of local associations, Central Office workers and Shadow Cabinet members that the media is biased against them. In her first year in opposition - off the front bench as a punishment for speaking out about the "something of the night" in Michael Howard - she has rarely been off our screens, becoming for many, in the era of the invisible man and his invisible team, the de facto Leader of the Opposition.

Whatever her doubts about spin, she dismisses any suggestion that her party is finished. "Nonsense," she barks and makes me feel embarrassed and foolish for even repeating such bike-shed tittle-tattle. "In 1992 everyone said Labour was finished after four successive defeats. Now look at them. The lesson is that you have to keep your nerve when all around you have lost theirs. That is the measure of an able politician."

Here, then, is a challenging directness at the heart of the Opposition, but if you want to find real dissent from the official steady-as-she-goes line, you have to turn to the few members of the party younger than William Hague. Donal Blaney, a burly 24-year-old lawyer with cherubic cheeks and a bluntness to make even Miss Widdecombe blush, is emphatic that now is the time for "frank speaking" if Conservatism is to be saved from eclipse.

Blaney, since May a Tory London borough councillor, has his gaze firmly set on a seat in the Commons. He is the first-ever chair of Conservative Futures, the body set up by Hague's lieutenants to replace the various either moribund or strife-ridden youth wings of the party. They may come to rue their choice.

"I am determined," says Blaney, who is proud to call himself a Thatcherite, "to meet William's promise that by the next election at least half of the members of the party will be younger than him." Currently there are 5,000 under-30s out of an estimated 300,000 members. Even allowing for the fact that the leader will be almost 40 by the millennium, Blaney is facing a massive task. "But," he argues, "it is an essential one. If you look at the demographics of the party, a huge section of our membership will be dead by the next election and currently we have no one to replace them. If we don't find those people, the party will be extinct in 10 years."

So there it is, at last, a well-placed Tory prepared to acknowledge publicly that the doom-merchants may just have a point. Blaney is scathing about the attitude of many local associations to this impending crisis. "They have no sense of urgency and cling in the wake of defeat to a sort of Dunkirk spirit when what we need to be doing is going out and evangelising with new policies, getting people - especially young people - back in."

This is the sort of uncompromising grass-roots activism that fuelled the Thatcher revolution, and it pays little heed to focus groups and self- effacement. Blaney claims that too many local branches are hostile to youth unless it is the old-fashioned Young Conservatives-style set-up "who will provide them with a couple of nice weddings a year to attend". "If they can't see the need to harness young people's energy for political ends, then they could at least be practical. Young people can walk some distance and so, when you're campaigning, they can help out. When I was campaigning, most of our volunteers were so old they couldn't go out leafleting where there were flats because they couldn't manage stairs."

Whether they will manage to get to William Hague's "Listening to Britain" meetings next month remains in doubt. A poorly attended campaign will be quoted as further evidence of a poorly party. Few are yet prepared to admit the illness is serious or long-term, but beneath the surface the doubts are there. After 23 years without losing an election, the sense of shock caused by the Labour landslide will not be dispelled by a few comforting words from William Hague and an overhaul of the organisation. Morale within the party remains fragile and a consensus as to exactly what caused the debacle has yet to be achieved. In the meantime, the Conservatives give the impression of a West End understudy, learning studiously from the star by day, tucked away in the wings when the lights come up at night, and with more hope than well-grounded expectation of ever finding themselves called upon to take over the lead.

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