Leading Article: Mr Hague needs to do more than just talk about building a tolerant party

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IN HIS interview with The Independent today, William Hague shows that he has a clear grasp of the theory of opposition, even if, as we have seen in recent weeks, he has shown a less-than-sure touch when it comes to the practice.

Mr Hague gets it right when he says that he wants to lead a party that is both "disciplined and tolerant". Of course, striking the right balance between the two is never easy. It is, to be fair, especially tricky for Mr Hague, whose party is still in trauma after its defeat on 1 May 1997. Moreover, the Tories remain riven on the European issue, which runs like the San Andreas fault from the top to the bottom of the party. Not so long ago, the Conservative Party could proudly lay claim to be the most successful machine in the history of democratic politics. Now, it is a disputatious sect.

But, even after making allowances for all the difficulties he faces in one of the hardest and most lonely jobs in politics, Mr Hague's record is still not impressive.

When it comes to tolerance, few could have set out a more attractive programme for change than Mr Hague when he addressed his first party conference in 1997. He called for "an open Conservatism that is tolerant, that believes that freedom is about much more than economics, that freedom doesn't stop at the shop counter".

Again, in his interview today, Mr Hague makes a significant, if overdue, attempt to make clear to his grassroots that theirs has to be an inclusive party which - when it comes to the parliamentary re-selection of such leftist Europhiles as David Curry, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke - remembers that even if activists disagree on some issues with their MPs, that that does not disqualify MPs, and others who think like them, from being Conservatives.

Too often, Mr Hague has failed to ensure that his party remains true to its one-nation traditions. Too often, Mr Hague remained silent and allowed the likes of Ann Widdecombe and John Redwood to make the running on "moral issues". We are still puzzled as to why he allowed the "Back to Basics" wing of the party to sabotage Steve Norris's attempt to become the party's candidate for Mayor of London. More distressingly, Mr Hague insists on retaining Clause 28, a symbol of intolerance and of his party's inability to change.

Mr Hague has combined an intolerance of dissent with an inept approach to discipline. From Lord Cranborne and Peter Lilley to Shaun Woodward, more often than not Mr Hague's dismissal of senior figures merely drew attention to his failings rather than showing him in a "tough" light. Lord Cranborne was guilty of disobeying Mr Hague, which shows the contempt his most senior colleagues had for him. Mr Lilley was a scapegoat. Mr Woodward was a sacrifice to the family values wing that backfired spectacularly.

Mr Hague has failed to live up to his early promise to modernise his party and keep in touch with its liberal tradition. Even Margaret Thatcher was careful not to lose touch with that strand when she retained Willie Whitelaw, Chris Patten and Douglas Hurd in her Cabinets. Mr Hague might also reflect on the performance of his whips.

Last week, one Tory MP said that: "Under William Hague, it's one step forwards, two steps back." He was right. A tolerant and disciplined party remains the goal; getting there may be beyond Mr Hague's leadership skills.