Leading Article: A tragic few days for the tormented Conservative party

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The Independent Culture
NOT ALL the homeliness of William Hague's Yorkshire accent, his natural wit and his personableness could yesterday overcome one simple fact: this has been a disaster of a conference for the Conservatives.

Even the party apparatchiks admit that they miscalculated over Europe, the issue that still divides the party and prevents it from becoming a credible opposition. Instead of being able to dampen down the rows before the conference started, the divisions have intensified by the day. Michael Heseltine's outburst and the ballot result on Monday, the unpleasant tone of debate on Wednesday, the fringe sessions on Thursday - event after event has conspired to show that Europe is too intense an issue to be swept under the carpet of party unity. Even as the new Tory leader got up to make his keynote speech yesterday, the media were far more excited by the news of defections and expulsions of members of the Tory European Parliamentary Party.

As it was, the speech did not raise the party or the roof, and perhaps could never have done so. Instead of the "real man" of self-deprecation and ordinariness that are Hague's strengths, we got instead the boy, appealing to the great men of the Conservative past and the high rhetoric of its ideals.

It is not entirely Hague's fault that he lives in an age when politicians must appeal as much to the media as to local party matrons, where his look and demeanour count so much against him. What is his fault, however, is that out of that inexperience he has chosen to go for broke within his party, to modernise through narrowness and to retreat within one wing of the party. He has set out to copy Blair but has misunderstood him.

The Prime Minister achieved two things as Labour leader. One was that he refashioned party management on an American model of media manipulation and presentational skills. The second was that Blair deliberately suppressed the party faithful in order to make Labour acceptable to non-party supporters.

Hague has failed on both. The Bournemouth Conference has been a classic in poor media presentation. Hague has courted the Little Englanders at the expense of wooing the public, which is rather more open-minded to the euro than many in the Conservative Party believe.

Time may work Hague's way. For perversely, and in spite of the mishaps and miscalculations in Bournemouth, this could be the week that Tory fortunes turn. The change of economic circumstances could quickly corrode the Labour Party - although it is a sign of the Tories' ineptitude that even skilled performers such as Francis Maude, the shadow Chancellor, were unable to get more capital out of it.

But it is foolish, even now, to write off the Tories. If the euro launch were to hit difficulties, if the Scots were to grow more independent-minded, if Ulster returned to violence, then, combined with the looming economic difficulties, even this current opposition could be kicked into life. Tighter selection of candidates and tougher discipline will make the party more dependable as time goes on, and it will, inevitably, win many seats in the local and Scottish and Welsh elections next May.

But a successful launch of the European Monetary Union and a sure-footed ride by the Government through recession could equally leave William Hague looking small and futile, on the fringes of events. Already there are whispers about Hague being an interim leader, preparing the ground for the likes of Michael Portillo or Ken Clarke. What is certain is that if the opinion polls aren't better by the time of the next Conservative Conference, the knives will be out for the Tory boy from Rotherham.