Sorry William, you can never win when you've been branded a loser

Blair has around him the skills of the greatest political strategists of our time. Hague has Sebastian Coe
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The Independent Culture
BELIEVE IT or not, William Hague is as much a winner in his chosen field of politics as his aunt has been in the equally unpredictable game of selecting a lottery ticket. The problem for Hague, and it is close to becoming a fatal one, is that most people do not believe it. Whereas the aunt has more then pounds 800 000 to prove she is a winner, her nephew struggles to make any headway at all.

Party leaders are viewed through a prism which distorts how they are seen. Everything they say and do, all the events around them, are shaped by the lens through which we see them. The reaction to the tidy sum won by Hague's aunt, is one such example, and should alarm the Tory leader. "At least one member of the Hague family is a winner" was the opening sentence of two newspaper reports on the story. Another suggested that the aunt should hand the whole lot over to the Tories in the hope that it did her nephew some good.

Imagine if Tony Blair's aunt had won the lottery when he was leader of the opposition. "The Midas touch extends beyond Tony Blair to other members of his family," would no doubt have been the approving tone. Long before he had won the election, Blair was decreed a winner and his every act was viewed through this positive light. Hague has been decreed a loser and I doubt if there is much he can do to change this established view while he remains leader of the Conservative party.

For a moment, let us consider Hague without the usual preconceptions. I got to know him a little when he was the minder for the Conservative candidate at the Langbaurgh by-election in 1991. For a backbencher to be placed in charge of an important by-election is a big test, but he was self- confident and supremely relaxed in the face of what seemed an impossible task. The Conservatives almost won it and he returned to Westminster with top marks from the high command. Soon afterwards, I asked him whether he was keen to get on the first rung of the ministerial ladder as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. "Only if it is in the Treasury where you are at the centre of things," he replied. Weeks later, I saw Norman Lamont emerging from 11 Downing Street in the rain with Hague holding an umbrella above the Chancellor's elegant coiffure. He had just been appointed Lamont's PPS. Soon he became the youngest minister in Major's government and then the youngest cabinet minister. If this is not a winner, I would like to meet one.

But then Hague's winning streak gave him a victory too far. He won the leadership of the Conservative party. He did so when he was far too inexperienced and when it was unleadable. The conjunction between party and leader has turned the winner into a loser. There is not much he can do about it. Indeed, it will probably get worse. For the more the winner adjusts to life as a loser, the more his judgement is likely to fail him.

The parallels between Hague and Neil Kinnock are overdone. In many ways, their political situations are entirely different. Kinnock led a party divided on every key issue and faced an increasingly self-confident right- wing government. Hague's party is divided most seriously on Europe. There are disagreements elsewhere, but they are nowhere near on the scale of the schisms which faced Kinnock. Hague also faces a government which on many issues endorses rather than challenges the 18 years of Tory rule. Of the two of them, Hague has by far the easier task.

But what Hague does have in common with Kinnock is the way in which he is perceived. Within months of becoming leader, Kinnock was viewed as a loser. It was a metamorphosis as dramatic as Hague's. For before he was a leader, and how quickly this was forgotten, Kinnock was viewed rightly through a lens marked "winner". Indeed, in one of his biographies, Glenys Kinnock is quoted as observing during the 1987 election campaign that she thought her husband might just win. "Anything Neil has taken on he has always won." She was viewing him as the admiring wife who had seen him storm through university politics and then captivate the Labour party and the media with his oratory and charm.

The rest of the world had already been given the lens marked "loser". I date it from the autumn of 1983 when The Sun christened Kinnock "A Welsh windbag" in one of its editorials. The label stuck.

For Kinnock, all the characteristics of the "winner" became those of a loser. So his spellbinding oratory became a sign of his long-windedness. The exuberant humour symbolised immaturity. The razor sharp political instincts were seen as unprincipled political ambition. He lost confidence in the characteristics that made him a winner and he tried to assume the personality of a bank manager.

Hague is going through the pre- bank manager phase. A Tory MP, largely sympathetic to the leader, said to me last week that his mother, although an ardent Conservative, "couldn't stand William's voice". His voice, such an asset when he was a "winner", has become a liability. It is not his voice that has changed - he is still a good speaker and interviewee - but the perception of him.

With the changed perception comes a choreography of discontent familiar to doomed leaders. Every time Michael Portillo speaks or writes, it is viewed as a leadership bid, even though he is in no position to make one from outside parliament. Ken Clarke is being seen in some quarters as a possible leadership candidate, although the party has just voted for a policy on the Euro fundamentally at odds with his own. The speculation has nothing to do with Portillo or Clarke, and everything to do with a leader who has become vulnerable. Similarly, when Hague has successes, such as at Prime Minister's Question Time, they are dismissed as irrelevant. And when he makes big, set-piece speeches which manage to match political cunnning with ideology, they make no impact. Tonight, when he makes the Christian case for Toryism, endorsing the notion of "our mutual obligations and our personal responsibility", he will face the retort that Tony Blair got there first.

Hague has made several mistakes since becoming Tory leader, of which the most significant was the ballot on the Euro. Did he not realise that his sceptics would return to ask for more, as Portillo did last week? The single currency apart, he is performing rather well with virtually no help. When Blair became leader, he had around him the skills of the greatest political strategists of our time. Hague has Sebastian Coe.

Much more than they like to admit, politicians dance to the music of time rather than shape the tunes themselves. Hague became party leader at the wrong time. A view has been formed and is unlikely to be revised: Hague is a loser who will not be Prime Minister.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'