Leading Article: Hague says he's left Major behind - but where is he going?

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The Independent Culture
TRASHING THE previous leader is the game any party leader must play. Margaret Thatcher did it to Edward Heath. John Major did it to Lady Thatcher. Now William Hague is doing it to Mr Major. The former prime minister was decent about it on the televised sofa yesterday, but Mr Major does not like it. Too bad - it is the occupational hazard of ex-leaders. However, the question that must be asked is: to what purpose is Mr Hague distancing himself from his predecessor?

Mr Hague's rather unspecific apology yesterday for his party's failure to deliver its past promises only further underscored his lack of a distinctive new direction. When he attacked the Labour Government last week for putting up taxes, he did not say how he would cut them. This is an especially tricky question for a party which recently lost office by betraying its promise on tax. How helpful of Michael Portillo, then, who as minister for the control of public spending advocated the "ultra-low tax economy", now to advise his colleagues who remain in the House of Commons to associate themselves with the demands for higher pay of the nurses and teachers. But does Mr Hague tell him to jump in a lake? He does not, and so we remain puzzled about where he is going.

When Tony Blair ditched his predecessor's policies, at least it was clear where he was headed - straight for the centre ground, which he has straddled, Colossus-like, ever since.

It is quite extraordinary that the Conservatives, who dominated British politics this century, should find themselves so marginalised at the end of it. So marginalised, in fact, that it no longer seems outlandish to wonder if they might be replaced as the main party of Opposition by the Liberal Democrats - although that would require Charles Kennedy to rubbish large parts of Paddy Ashdown's legacy if he succeeds him this summer.

At least the Lib Dems have a consistent story to tell on tax cuts - they should not happen until the improvements in public services have come through. If they could ally an honest line on "tax and spend" with a thoroughgoing libertarianism they could offer the most convincing opposition to Labour's strong authoritarian streak.

That is an unlikely outcome of the present realignment of British politics. Much more likely is a mirror-image of the history of the 18 years of Tory government, with Mr Hague in the position of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock - hobbled by his party's past. Mr Hague will be too weak to present himself as a convincing alternative to New Labour, and yet too strong to prevent a third party emerging to take on the fight. There is a way out of Mr Hague's misery: come out in favour of a fairer voting system and endorse Roy Jenkins's proposals for electoral reform.

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