Leading Article: Pity poor Mr Hague - so much done, so much still to do

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The Independent Culture
THE DEPRESSING truth for William Hague is that Michael Portillo is right. When the former Defence Secretary wrote in these pages on Saturday that "the political outlook for the Tories is no brighter today than it was in that grey dawn of 2 May last year", his observation was accurate - about the politics at least, if not about the colour of the dawn, which was a cloudless summer morning.

This is unfair, because Mr Hague is a much better leader than his current invisibility and low ratings would imply. His self-possession and quick intellect suggest that he would have matured into a formidable heavyweight if he had had another 10 years' Cabinet experience. But he was forced into the top job before he was ready, and at a time when the Conservative Party was flat on its back.

Yesterday, Mr Hague sought to take credit for the fact that the Conservatives have not split, and have not been overtaken by the Liberal Democrats. But the truth is that leaders are rarely thanked for saving parties which have suffered catastrophic disasters from even worse fates. In 1983, the Labour Party could have simply laid down in the grave it had dug for itself, and Neil Kinnock earned scant reward for reviving its will to live. Similarly with Mr Hague now, except that he has completed a democratic reform of party structures in just 18 months, compared with 12 years for the parallel Labour revolution. The Tory leader can now face his opponents in Britain's notional two-and-a-half-party system and look them squarely in the eye as a modern democratic movement.

The Tory dilemma is framed by the fact that normal two-and-a-half party politics has been suspended since the election, and shows no sign of resuming. Mr Blair dominates his government, his party and the political personality of the country as much as Margaret Thatcher did 10 years ago, but with a rhetoric of inclusiveness and a common cause with the Liberal Democrats which allows Mr Hague no elbow room at all.

Nor does he have much help. As Mr Portillo pointed out, "the parliamentary pool from which Mr Hague can choose new talent is, of course, very small", which is a waspish way of saying that the Tory team is dismally underpowered. Francis Maude, who is - as 88 per cent of the population are unaware - shadow Chancellor, presents a plausible figure. Ann Widdecombe is magnificent, but is she cut out to be shadow Health Secretary? And the rest are yesterday's men (and one woman, Gillian Shephard) or new boys who have not yet made a mark. At least the Tory party is taking the opportunity this conference to say farewell to Lord Parkinson, if not actually good riddance.

So what is Mr Hague's strategy for recovery, apart from waiting for something to come up and repeatedly trouncing the Prime Minister in the House of Commons? That may work eventually, but there can be no guarantee of results by the next election, and any recovery would be more durable if it were based on ideological foundations.

It is an extraordinary commentary both on Tony Blair's success and the Tory party's disarray that the principles of modern Conservatism are so difficult to define. Sir Edward Heath states the problem succinctly in our interview with him today, saying that the Prime Minister believes "he only got his majority by being more Tory than the Tories" and intends to keep his position by continuing to tack to the right. But Mr Hague did nothing to clarify the alternative yesterday, using language which could have come straight from Mr Blair's Dictionary of Focus-Group-Tested Phrases. He said he believes in "self-reliance" and "families who work hard and try to be independent"; he is opposed to "punitive taxation" and to "people who try to live off other people when they don't need to do so". This is hopeless. Mr Hague rightly observes that these are values that the "vast majority of the country believes in as well" - which is why Mr Blair is there already.

At least Mr Portillo, about whose political career nothing was more statesmanlike than the manner of his leaving it, advocates a distinctive libertarianism. Indeed, if Paddy Ashdown will not promote liberal values in the debate on drugs or police powers or on our centralised education system, then the neo-liberals should. The hard choices come when the likes of Mr Portillo try to break down the monoliths of tax-funded education and health services, not to mention social security, all of which the Tories tried to reform when in government and failed. We can see why Mr Hague prefers the waiting game, keeping as many options open as possible. The other part of his strategy is to try to settle Europe as an issue, which will not work. He has been forced to throw in his lot with the Little English Last Ditchers who, by definition, will be on the losing side of a referendum, given that Mr Blair will not hold one unless he is sure he can win.

The problem of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine symbolises the dilemma: there is no reason why they should not be in New Labour, but if Hague cannot keep people like them, he risks being leader of a ghetto party which will represent the 20-25 per cent of the population who are core Conservative nationalists. From the point of view of a vibrant democratic debate, this would be a good thing.

But this is clearly not Mr Hague's intention: he wants to challenge Mr Blair for the centre ground. And so he should, but he is not going to do that simply by defending the status quo, no matter that the instincts of the British voter, and his party's name, speak of conservatism. He should recognise that electoral reform is not only in his party's crude interest because the present system is biased against it, but it would help it lay claim to a more open style of politics. But he also needs to adopt controversial positions on issues of principle which cut across expectations of his own party and help it break out of the English nationalist ghetto.

A staunch defence of civil liberties, individualism and pluralism is a platform waiting to be seized by any of the political leaders - Mr Hague could get there first.