And how it has turned. Ashcroft's decision to sue The Times for libel has ensured that this story will run and run. Indeed, given the time it takes for a libel case to reach the courts it might be running and running in the immediate build-up to the next election. When contemplating his grim inheritance, Hague could not have foreseen such an appalling pre- election scenario: the Conservative Party's Treasurer versus Rupert Murdoch's Times in a court case over sleaze allegations. In the over-zealous climate in which politicians function today, even the perception of sleaze is highly damaging. Hints of dark deeds have almost the same potency as conclusive evidence.
In a truly nightmarish twist, the Ashcroft affair has revived the issue of "sleaze", while simultaneously heightening tensions between the Conservatives and the Murdoch-owned newspapers. The decision to sue was described by the Conservative Party as a "personal matter", which is no doubt the case. But Ashcroft has become a story because he is the Treasurer of the Conservative Party. In this case the personal is the party political. Albeit indirectly, the Conservatives are taking on Murdoch in court. It was surely no coincidence that in an editorial yesterday, The Times as good as urged its readers in the Eddisbury by-election to vote Labour. For now, the broadsheet which ardently opposes the single currency has turned its back on the party which offers a vision of Europe closest to its own.
Hague deserves sympathy for his plight rather than condemnation. The critics who have suggested from the security of their Olympian heights that Hague made a dreadful error in accepting Ashcroft's pounds 3m donation forget quite how bad things looked in the summer of 1997. Licking their wounds, the Conservatives were in awe of Labour's Millbank machine which was already moving into gear for the next set of elections. A lavishly financed party machine seemed to be an essential precondition to recovery and, ultimately, electoral success. Any leader of such a party in such a situation would have taken the money.
Even so, if the time comes - and I believe it will - when Hague severs the link with Ashcroft, he will manage without the cash. Two years on, in the cold light of day, it is clear that Millbank and its expensive campaigning made very little difference to Labour's victory. All the election studies that have followed agree that Tony Blair would have won easily anyway. The Conservatives lost the 1997 election when they left the Exchange Rate Mechanism nearly five years earlier. The landslide was secured by the sharpest strategic and tactical thinkers in politics, along with the leadership of Tony Blair. The amount of money Labour spent, courtesy of Bernie Ecclestone and others, made very little difference. Quite likely, the large sums spent by the Conservatives on campaigning cost them votes.
There has not been a single election campaign where the amount of money spent by a party made a significant difference to the outcome. To take a painfully amusing example, in 1983 Labour was not strapped for cash. It just did not have a coherent, sellable message. As Robert Harris's biography of Neil Kinnock reminds us (Kinnock was not leader at the time), the heavily staffed Party HQ spent a large sum on an expensive advertisement in the Daily Mirror which carried the following slogan:
ARE YOU GOING TO VOTE BREAD OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF THE OLD?
OR WILL YOU PUT IT TO WORK FOR BRITAIN?
Apparently the second line was part of the copy from a different advertisement. The two had become accidentally mixed. Neither Ashcroft's millions or Ecclestone's million could have made such a shambolic party electable in 1983. It is factors other than money which win votes for a party.
Infinitely more important for Hague than large sums of money is a set of coherent ideas and acquiring the knack of catching out the nimble-footed Blairites (admittedly a daunting task). He is learning the art more quickly than any of his colleagues and has not been given enough credit for the way he has dealt with his extraordinarily bad hand. In the short term he has managed to turn Europe to his advantage, a remarkable achievement, as it was an issue which threatened to incite civil war. He recognised quickly, also, that there are votes in transport, placing the agile John Redwood against John Prescott (who incidentally offered another glorious addition to the Prescottian phrase book this week when he declared that the Strategic Railway Authority would help to "plug the lugholes" in the privatisation arrangements) and creating a separate transport spokesman in addition, with shadow cabinet status.
Yet transport illustrates why the Conservatives as a party in opposition remain at the early learning stage. Without enough subtlety they are trying to please everybody. They are the drivers' friend, the train users' friend and the underground users' friend. We travellers need our friends, but we need, also, to know what kind of help would be at hand. New Labour in opposition always had policies to offer which at least appeared coherent and stood up to some intensive scrutiny. Nor are the Conservatives' onslaughts especially consistent. Redwood, a good phrasemaker, accuses Prescott of "playing with trains", interfering too much in the privatised railways. Other Conservative MPs have attacked him for introducing a cosmetic Strategic Railway Authority which will have no power. Either Prescott is the powerful Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine or he is a sadly powerless figure pretending to be powerful. He cannot be both.
In reality, both of the big parties are currently engaged in a destructive game of outdoing the other in profligacy. If spending was capped, the television companies would ensure sustained exposure. In the era of rolling television news, political stories, especially as the election draws near, will fill many a hole in the schedules. Let the TV companies worry about the coverage. Politicians, free of the whiff of sleaze, could get on with composing the messages.
Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'Reuse content