Leading Article: Incompetent and inept - but there is no alternative

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST week has been widely described as William Hague's worst since becoming Tory leader. It was, in fact, only his worst week since his last worst week, which was the one immediately before, with its botched "Hague relaunch". Mr Hague ought to be wondering how many more "worst weeks" he can cope with. The rows over precisely what Thatcherism means to the Tories and what the Tories mean to do to the NHS and education were not even cathartic. They culminated in some high-profile scapegoatery in the sacking of an official, Mr Michael Simmonds: harsh treatment for a routine bit of leaking.

Mr Simmonds's departure will not solve the Tories' problems: what it does is to highlight a fractious, nervous, incompetent Tory high command.

It need not have been so. The Tory leadership, to be fair, was well advised to nail the idea that they are intent on privatising the health service and state education. The voters clearly feel this. So Mr Hague set the Deputy Leader, Mr Lilley, about the task of changing the perception that, for Tories, market forces were all, and preparing the way for some new policies. But why did Mr Lilley have to commit his apparent act of apostasy on the very night that Margaret Thatcher, whose liking for market solutions is no big secret, was being simultaneously lauded at a special dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of her 1979 victory? Or court controversy during some important election campaigns? Why was it sold as a crude "ditching Thatcherism" exercise? Why were some members of the Shadow Cabinet not consulted? The exercise was spectacularly mishandled.

It is hard to believe that Mr Hague and his lieutenants could have got such basics wrong, but they have been consistently inept at this part of the political game. Mr Hague himself has been disappointing. If we were asked to create an Identikit ideal Tory leader, we would come up with the very assets that Mr Hague possesses. He is young, clever, state educated; he uses the NHS; he is classless; he comes from the centre-right, the centre of gravity of his party; he is, mostly, an impressive parliamentarian. And yet, curiously, Mr Hague contrives to be a man who is less than the sum of his parts.

What is even worse for Mr Hague is that he is beginning to look very small fry next to Tony Blair, now being presented as the effective leader of the free world.

This may, in fact, be part of the trouble. The Tories are becoming obsessed with the charisma gap between Hague and Blair. They are anxious students of the rebuilding of Labour. But they are learning the wrong lessons. They are mesmerised by the mythology of spin at the expense, even, of procedural basics.

In a speech last night Mr Hague again attempted to lend clarity to a muddled message. But, as Michael Portillo has pointed out, "the spoken word has only a limited capacity to convince. It has to be accompanied by symbolic actions." Ditching Thatcherism on its birthday may have been a symbolic act; if so, it was the wrong one, as anyone with the slightest political nous could have pointed out in advance. Mr Portillo again: "You cannot ditch policies that succeeded so convincingly that they were adopted by your opponents."

The Scottish, Welsh and local elections are a crucial test of Mr Hague's leadership. He may be challenged if his party fares badly. But there is no obvious replacement. Mr Clarke would reconnect the Tories with the voters, but at the expense of even bigger splits. Mr Maude has not lived up to his promise. Mr Portillo is unavailable. And Miss Widdecombe might be too radical a shift, even for desperate Tories. If Mr Hague really is the best leader the Tories have got, then for him - and for his ill- fated spin doctor Amanda Platell - the worst weeks are yet to come.

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