Mr Hague is not the problem - it's his party

`If I were the Tories, I would clutch at proportional representation. It may be the only way back'
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The Independent Culture
IN A crowded field, the most lethal comment about William Hague this week has come from Tony Blair. From lofty prime-ministerial heights, Blair observed that Hague might be able to tell good jokes, but at every pivotal moment he was guilty of appalling misjudgements.

These words from a political opponent were more wounding than the assaults from right-wing newspapers because they have killed off Hague's greatest political weapon. His jokes were working. Only a week ago he was basking in some glowing media coverage for his speech on the Government's new legislative programme. The one-liners were hitting home. Conservative MPs were feeling a little better about themselves, while Blair and his senior ministers had been made to feel a shade uneasy.

No politician likes to be ridiculed, and Hague had mastered the art of making us laugh with him and at his opponents. Now, with one soundbite, Blair had cleverly linked Hague's ace with the chaos that has engulfed the Tory party. Next time Hague attempts to wound with wit, Blair's words will have achieved their objective. The reaction will be much more negative: "Hague is a joker in every sense of the word."

The near-effortless destruction by Blair of a powerful Tory weapon has been one consequence of a terrible week for the Conservatives. The party that ruled for 18 years is collapsing in front of our eyes and its leader is being kicked about from all sides. Yet the kicking is misplaced. What we are witnessing is much more profound than the misjudgements of one leader. Hague has performed credibly, and at some points heroically, in an impossible situation.

Consider the allegations of appalling misjudgement that have been thrown at him this week. What would anyone else in his position have done, when Michael Ashcroft came bearing gifts? When Hague became leader in the summer of 1997, the parliamentary party was a rump, the Shadow Cabinet lacked punch and Conservative Central Office was a demoralised shell. Over the road, mighty Millbank ruled, still celebrating its landslide win. Business leaders who used to queue up to finance the Conservatives were now lining up to help Labour's cause. If the Tories were to recover, they needed to take on the might of the Millbank machine. Enter Ashcroft.

Judgement on the Archer affair is also much easier to make in hindsight. But consider the situation again from Hague's point of view. He was a young leader, performing badly in the polls. Lord Archer wanted to be the party's mayoral candidate.The activists adored him. Margaret Thatcher and John Major also wanted him to be the candidate. The tradition in the Conservative party is for one former leader to attack the current one. Hague would have had two on his back if he had blocked the charismatic novelist. Hague did not have the political space, or enough evidence against Archer, to defy his party.

In both cases, the current state of the Tory party, not the actions of its leader, brought about the chaos. The 1997 election all but wiped the party out. Without Ashcroft's money it would have had serious difficulty running a national headquarters. Its party conferences have become virtually business-free zones, whereas at Labour gatherings you cannot move without bumping into an entrepreneur. In the Eighties, as Donald Macintyre pointed out yesterday, Labour could always rely on the unions for financial support. The Tories needed every penny they could get.

The Archer candidacy is a symptom of a wider decline. Eighteen years of continuous rule followed by the wipe-out in 1997 meant that the party had no credible stars. That is why so much frenzied faith is being placed in Michael Portillo. In his own way, Archer was a star. Former Tory cabinet ministers were too old, tired, busy or disillusioned to have ambitions to lead London. Archer was given a virtually free field.

The 1997 slaughter also explains why the Shadow Cabinet underperforms. In the early Eighties, most of Labour's stars survived the party's electoral massacres. Hague was left with Maude, Maples and Widdecombe - and they are his top performers.

Which is why Hague can claim heroic status. In his thirties, at far too young an age to lead a party in good times, let alone bad, he performs virtually alone. In the Eighties, the Thatcher government suffered such troughs of unpopularity that the Labour leaders could always attract top advisers. An electoral win always seemed possible. No one who seeks a whiff of power would turn to the Conservative party at the moment. Any Alastair Campbells waiting in the wings will not move on to such a precarious stage while the giants of the past either are part of the party's problem (Heseltine and Clarke) or are making their fortunes elsewhere.

At no point has the shortage of sharp minds been more exposed. The crises this week have in fact been relatively small. The reaction to them has been disastrous. The more poor old Archer has been tormented by his previous admirers, the more his sins have seemed worse than they really are. A lie from a previous decade would have been dealt with more soberly by a self- confident party. Instead there was panic, and the panic gave the story fresh angles, reminding us constantly of the sleaze that poisoned the dying years of the Major government. The much vaunted Ethics Committee will now enjoy a higher profile than the Shadow Cabinet, but will serve only to reinforce a perception of a party full of members with much to hide.

Much more preposterous was the response to the latest bout of Ashcroft allegations. The party has not acted unlawfully in taking his money. For now, that should have been the only message to come forth from Conservative Central Office.

Instead, the high command made wild allegations about cabinet members breaking into their bank accounts. Not even those newspapers that constantly run non-stories about the greed of various cabinet ministers would make such a claim. The frenzied accusations from Conservative Central Office added fire to a story that could have been swatted away.

The dramatic decline of the Conservative party has been far from inevitable. Its values have not been undermined in the same way that Labour's were after it was booted out of power in 1979. Voters seem to share the party's Euroscepticism, while low taxation and tight controls on public spending have become part of the prevailing orthodoxy.

What has finished the Conservatives off is the voting system that kept them in power for far too long and then wiped them out in one election.

If I were them, I would consider clutching at the straw of proportional representation, which Tony Blair has thrown to the wind. It may be the only way back. For now the party has become a joke. The leader, who is the best available, will not even be able to use his jokes any more for salvation.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'