Leading Article: It takes more than jokes to make an effective leader of the Opposition

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THE MESS that is Jeffrey Archer speaks for itself. The story of his life increasingly appears as a series of unexploded cluster bomblets. As each scandal emerges, there is always another one just around the corner. Over the years, we have become accustomed to that.

In some ways, however, the man who comes worst out of this whole affair is not Lord Archer himself - did anybody really expect anything different? - but the Conservative Party leader, William Hague. The way that he has handled the Archer case suggests that Mr Hague's own political judgement is, at best, highly suspect.

Now that the unruly Archer stallion is galloping over a distant horizon, Mr Hague suddenly slams shut the stable door. Of Lord Archer (whose private gym he liked to use for karate practice, until last week), he now insists: "I will not tolerate behaviour like this in my party."

But this comes too late, from the man who just two months ago was talking of the noble lord as "a candidate of probity and integrity" to be London's mayor. Lord Archer's biographer, Michael Crick, was curtly rebuffed when he sought a meeting in connection with the details of Lord Archer's past. Mr Hague was determined not to know about the reality. He cannot now pretend different.

Mr Archer is not the only reminder of the sleaze factor that dogs the Conservatives. The failure to refer the case of the party treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, to the Tories' grandly titled but stagnant Ethics and Integrity Committee, is extraordinary. Mr Ashcroft, who has a libel case outstanding against The Times, may be a victim of unwarranted slurs. But that is not the point. Serious questions have been raised against the party treasurer and substantial donor - and need to be answered. The committee is precisely the forum where such questions can be raised.

Mr Hague has his strengths. He is good at delivering caustic one-liners in the House of Commons. He successfully gets under the skin of the pathologically unflappable Tony Blair, a talent that is itself to be admired. His performance during last week's Queen's Speech was superb.

Verbal digs by themselves do not, however, get you far if your party is falling apart and if you have no vision. Apart from his increasingly hardline stance on Europe, it is hard to identify his political creed or see anything original that might demolish the Prime Minister's massive majority.

Nothing goes right for Mr Hague any more. Even a Hague baby would be too late. If Ffion announces a pregnancy tomorrow, she would miss the aaah factor that the Blairs have made their own. Instead, William and Ffion would be mocked for trying to keep up with the Blairs.

More seriously, his attempts to seem decisive have been anything but. The ballot on Europe was a disaster; his rejection of Thatcherism has been confused; the appearance of Lady Thatcher at Blackpool, where she treated Mr Hague as if he were a foolish nephew, was blackly comic (unless you happened to be Mr Hague, in which case it bordered on the tragic).

Mr Hague came to power as a compromise candidate - a safe, neutral pair of hands. In reality he has been ineffectual, rather than safe or neutral.

Tony Blair may feel that all his Christmases have come at once. But the Conservative Party deserves better. Mr Hague needs more than just good jokes.