Mr Hague has a message but no one is listening

I sense among right wing Tories a death-wish; some will vote Labour at the next election
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The Independent Culture
THAT WILLIAM Hague, he's useless. Good for nothing. Can't remember a single thing he's said. What do they stand for, these Tories? Bring back Maggie. Or Michael Portillo. He's nicer than we thought, isn't he: quite handsome. Did you see him on that programme talking about his dad and the Spanish Revolution? Touching. Funny he never mentioned it all these years. Or maybe that Ken Clarke would be better. Got the common touch, you see. Not like whatshisname.

On the inadequacies of Mr Hague, the nation is united. He confronts the most absorbent government in history - soft, strong and, at this rate, very, very, long. New Labour sucks up other people's ideas promiscuously and turns them into presentational triumphs. Mr Hague's shadow front bench is so motley, ill-orchestrated and jarringly arrogant that it serves as a weekly reminder of why exactly so many swing voters decided they preferred that nice Mr Blair. His own party members, we revealed on Saturday, don't recognise the Shadow Cabinet. Lucky them.

All of this may, however, be dealable with in the fullness of time when it becomes clear that not all of New Labour's promises to create the promised land will be made good. But Mr Hague has a serious problem that may finish him off long before New Labour starts to falter. He is the victim of rank impossibilism among his prominent supporters and, in particular, the Tory press.

The politics of the impossible have a long history in the Conservative Party. Enoch Powell was their most sedulous practitioner. The net effect is to split the party - often among absurd lines: Powell struck up the race row at a time when immigration was in fact decreasing.

Margaret Thatcher exploited the irrational streak by building herself up as a goddess whose will none dared brook, using her diva-like powers to subjugate internal revolt. Even that failed, in the end.

John Major could not cope with this camp and faintly hysterical tendency among his colleagues - an atmosphere extravagantly captured by John Redwood's emanuensis, Hywel Williams, in his demolition of the Major government, Guilty Men. Mr Williams is a witty and unforgiving Cato. But to an outsider, the self-indulgence with which the Eurosceptics helped destroy the Major government is not easily explicable. Didn't they know that Labour was more, not less, likely to take Britain deeper into European institutions?

Even today, I sense among right-wing Tories a kind of death wish. I can't avoid the suspicion that some of them will vote Labour just to finish off Mr Hague at the next election. It is a kind of madness: a glorious, manic defeatism. Today's Tory impossibilists have discovered the joys of sado-masochism, which they practise against the party they are supposed to support.

Mr Blair's official spokesman has been complaining that the press is not entirely on message, what with its having the nerve to report things he did not tell it to. But it is the Tories who have the real media nightmare. Not even "their" newspapers offer any succour. Hague received only belated and lukewarm support for sacking Lord Cranborne, after the peer's gross disloyalty.

At a dinner for Mr Hague, I sat next to an old colleague, a politically influential figure at The Daily Telegraph. A fervent Eurosceptic, he asked the Tory leader whether the wording of a particular passage could be taken to mean that Mr Hague wanted to renegotiate the Maastricht or Amsterdam Treaties. No, replied Mr Hague: that wasn't on the cards at all. My neighbour pressed on: surely renegotiation ought to be a Tory option? No, repeated Mr Hague (and now I paraphrase just a bit), the damn treaties were signed, and under Conservative governments at that, so we just have to live with them.

The disappointment from my old friend was palpable. He kept worrying at the precise phrasing for some time. Mr Hague still gave no satisfaction. A frost descended. Poor man: he can't please the Europhiles who want to join a single currency the day before yesterday. But he also can't please those who want him to conduct a jihad against the EU and all its works.

Too many influential Tory voices want Mr Hague to do several impossible things before breakfast: get out of the European Union, rule out the single currency in perpetuity, oppose the Northern Ireland peace process. That is before you get to the family fundamentalists who want non-married couples penalised through the tax system, a return to stigmatising single mothers and a bit of ritual gay-bashing.

Impossibilism is increasingly displayed by the Tory Europhiles, who are behaving as if there were already a breakaway party without having the nerve to get off their back benches and found one. "Any identity of views between me and the Conservative Party is entirely coincidental", announced one of their number recently. In which case, what is he doing occupying a Tory seat?

The management of such irritations is, of course, what a leader is there to do. But a party can be led only if it wants to be led. If it has decided to run amok then he cannot stop it. But he can stop conniving in his own misfortune.

His inner team is young, wonkish and very male, lacking in experience and worldliness. It would not be a bad idea for Mr Hague to spend at least a little time listening to some of the old warhorses.

Second, failing to engage in a debate about political ideas, lest Labour steal those ideas, can't be sustained. The Tories must give the public something to talk about. Third, the embarrassing and unfocused expeditions into nationalist territory, and the blather about Britishness, must be checked. A wise leader knows when to turn back.

Mr Hague is an eloquent defender of the free market, a subject on which the Government is ambiguous. His concerns about democratic accountability, at Westminster and in Europe, are justified. He has assumed an admirably libertarian stance on social issues and has no truck with the murmured racialism that has for long been allowed to pass without censure in his party. He has always been more liberal than his party on the gay age of consent. A true meritocrat, he is unsullied by the poisonous snobbery that has long been around in the Tory Party.

Hague does have a message worth hearing. Now he must find the words to say it and the mountain-top to shout it from.

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