What is to be done with the helpless and hapless Mr Hague?

Remarkably, it is the Conservatives and not the government suffering from mid-term doldrums
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The Independent Culture
IF SOME latter day Flaubert were to write a modern British version of the great man's Dictionary of Received Ideas, that wonderful bible of all the most unoriginal but seemingly knowledgeable Things to Say in bourgeois society, the entry for the Conservative Party would write itself: "Busted flush. Hopeless case. Racked by division. Obliterated by Tony Blair."

It is indeed the Received Wisdom of the day. It has stubbornly survived the skirmishes over Genetically Modified food and crops, in which John Redwood - and, for that matter, William Hague - has embarrassed the government. It survives Hague's undoubtedly skilful and effective performances at the dispatch box every Wednesday against the Prime Minister. It has survived a modest recovery in local council by-elections. And it has survived one of the most unexpected renaissances in recent history, the blossoming of Ann Widdecombe.

The assumption that the unenviable plight of the Conservative Party is a necessary consequence of the times is an easy one to make. It is, if anything, reinforced by Central Office figures designed to demonstrate that the party has been bobbing at or under 30 per cent since Black Wednesday and that therefore William Hague cannot be blamed for the party's failure to make more headway.

It makes sense of what appears to be Hague's strategy of taking few risks, particularly any which might alienate the party's right wingers who formed the bulk of his support when he became leader after the 1997 election, to await a general election in which the law of the political cycle dictates that his party cannot fail to do better than it did in 1997, and to coast to better times.

There are, however, faults in this prescription. The remarkable fact that it is the Conservative Party and not the government which is suffering from mid-term doldrums is not quite so inevitable as the defeatists in its own ranks assume. It could make a start by pursuing the doctrine that the duty of oppositions is to oppose. Take the Commons debate on House of Lords reform this week, the most recent and dismal example of the Opposition's failure to oppose. The debate was interesting, perhaps the first occasion since the general election when the Commons, across party divisions, began to stir.

Several speeches, and two in particular, that by the Labour QC Robert Marshall-Andrews, and an equally thoughtful though less entertaining one by the young Tory backbencher Andrew Tyrie, a Hague loyalist, pointed the way to making common cause against the government's relentlessly minimalist approach to Lords reform in general, and the dangers of Prime Ministerial patronage.

Moving an amendment which would have deprived Prime Ministers of much of their power to appoint life peers, Tyrie rehearsed the long list of Conservatives "including Curzon, Churchill, FE Smith, and Lord Carrington" who had been, like Tyrie himself, in favour of an elected Upper House. If the Tory front bench had forced Tyrie's amendment to the vote or joined forces with Marshall-Andrews, it would not have defeated the Government.

But it would have done a lot to damage the credibility of a reform which may yet leave the Lords in largely appointed hands. So what does the Tory front bench do? It presses a hopeless amendment which proposes that all hereditary peers should retain the right to speak, though not to vote, and to continue to use its club facilities. Not content with that, it does not make any serious attempt to halt the progress of the Government's bill.

Next week, the Tory hereditary peers will back a bland anti-patronage amendment, but in the certain knowledge that the defeat will be merely symbolic. Mr Hague had an opportunity to present himself as more democratic and progressive than Mr Blair, and attract support from Labour MPs in the process. And he threw it away. Having sacked Lord Cranborne for making a deal with Mr Blair which, while ending the hereditary principle, will preserve temporary voting rights for 91 hereditary peers, Mr Hague then dragoons his MPs into conduct which ensures that the same deal will become law. This is known as having the worst of both worlds.

It is also not the way to make a difference. What's more, it is one of several respects in which Mr Hague can unfavourably be compared with Kenneth Clarke, another Tory who has incidentally "come out" in favour of an elected chamber. And comparing Mr Hague unfavourably with Mr Clarke is once again a fashionable activity in several Tory circles.

If you doubt that the Tories could be doing better than they are, simply consider what life would be like if Mr Clarke were leading the party. Mr Clarke's robust attack from the backbenches in a recent health debate is only a taster of what he might achieve from the dispatch box. The common assumption is that a Eurosceptic Tory party would never turn to Mr Clarke. But desperate times make desperate men. Especially as on Europe - enthusiasm for which is Mr Clarke's most signal handicap as a potential leader of today's Tory party - he would allow the party to agree to differ until an EMU referendum. He is, in other words, still dangerous.

That said, no doubt Mr Hague is still highly unlikely to be toppled this side of an election. Only a wholesale failure to improve the Tory vote in this year's Scottish, Welsh and European elections would make him seriously vulnerable. But assuming that he survives those elections, and even modestly improves his standing in them, there are still fallacies in the strategy of appeasing the right until the next general election.

Some Tory MPs, shaken by the votes the Referendum Party managed to shave off them in the 1997 election, claim to be worried about the electoral threat from parties on the right. But if the polling by the renegade pro- European MEPS John Stevens and Brendan Donnelly shows anything, it is that the real threat is on the pro-European left: the fact that 13 per cent of electors would support a pro-European "New Conservative Party" led by Clarke and Michael Heseltine suggests that Tory supporters are a lot more favourably inclined towards EMU than Tory activists.

The problem for Mr Hague is what one or two of his opponents are now gleefully calling the "double whammy" - that he loses, though not dishonourably, the general election and then an EMU referendum as well. At which point the pro-Europeans, including Mr Clarke, who would still only be 61 after a referendum in the year 2001, might well be able to reclaim, and largely reunite, their party.

They would have been proved right, and the Tory Eurosceptics wrong. Don't forget: this may be less than four years away. It helps to explain why Mr Clarke has no intention of leaving the Tory party at present; and why Mr Hague needs to do some thinking pretty fast, and not only about Europe.