William Hague is leading his party into freedom (from government)

If Mr Hague wanted to signal real change, he would begin to embrace Europe, not continue to disparage it
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A FEW weeks ago, William Hague gave a speech to one of those myriad party bodies that leaders of the Opposition must address, while Prime Ministers busily bestride the world. It may have been the Wiltshire and North Hampshire Regional Association of Conservative Women annual Stanley Baldwin lecture in Devizes ("Last year we had Virginia Bottomley, so we are going up in the world!"), but I forget.

This, edited of extraneous and irrelevant material, is what Mr Hague said: "Now our party can be free. Our party can choose to be free to face the future. We must choose to be free. Free of old structures, free of old habits, free of old thinking. We have to be free. For the sake of the British people, we have to be free. Free to face the future. Breaking free means being prepared to change our policies.

"Ours will be a party that has broken free. And to do that we have to be free. We're going to break free. Break free by changing our agenda. Break free by changing our policies. Break free by changing our approach and our language."

Well, no one can say they haven't been warned. Mr Blair wants to be a beacon, and Mr Hague wishes to be free. Indeed, there are some in his party who, after the last week, now want their leader to be almost completely unencumbered. They know that what William Hague wants to be free of are some of the things that they most like.

Essentially, it is all to do with the state. Lefties, even designer ones, are generally in favour of lots of state. They stress collective provision against private provision in education and health. Their first priority is not to return to the individual what he or she has earned by the sweat of his or her own brow, but to sequester it so as to scatter it around for the benefit of those less provident. Right-wingers, free marketeers, economic liberals, want much less state; as little, in fact, as you can get away with. Such people will always be questing for ways to relieve the burden of the collective on the individual.

About four weeks ago, the junior health spokesthing, Alan Duncan - Hague confidant and deputy to Ann Widdecombe - made a keynote address to an even smaller group of people than those his leader usually speaks to. His emphasis was admirably clear. The NHS was limited in what it could do and we needed a whole load more private provision.

"We should now," he argued, "build a larger public-personal mix in health care ourselves."

True, he skimped on the details a little, though he helpfully extolled the virtues of homeopathy and stopped only just short of endorsing crystal therapy. Then, last week, came Peter Lilley's speech (the epitome, I suppose, of Hagueite free-ness). In it, when discussing health, Lilley detailed the various ways in which health care could be funded.

One by one he dismissed the possibilities, concluding that: "The only option left is to require all risks to be pooled - helping those on low incomes to pay the cost by charging more to those on high incomes." As he himself went on: "We all pay into a common fund through our taxes an amount unrelated to our state of health but related to our income."

No wonder Ann Widdecombe, a woman to whom barefaced lying does not come easily, became suffused with misdirected rage yesterday, when questioned too closely on the contradiction.

We have, of course, been down this road before. Many Tories are impenitent about their past. They feel that they have no need to wear hair shirts or to flail themselves with scourges for the sins of the Thatcher era. Like the Labour left in 1979, their strong view is that it was an insufficiency of radicalism, not an excess, that lost them the last election. And they certainly know better than all the focus groups in the world what the voters really want. After all, did not the polls consistently show opposition to privatisation and trade union reform? And did the Tories not win election after election subsequently? It was weedy Majorism that squandered the Thatcher patrimony.

This is, in many ways, an attractive argument. For 15 years it was Labour that struggled to be free of its past, beginning with its volte-face on council house sales and continuing with Neil Kinnock's battle with Militant, concessions over unilateral nuclear disarmament, the closed shop and privatisation.

In the 10th year of Thatcher's premiership, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to set its seal on the ascendancy of the free-market right. Maggie and Ronnie had brought about the end of history; all that remained was for the revolution to be consolidated. In 1994, the Congressional landslide victory of Newt Gingrich and the US Republicans suggested a next, exciting stage for the anti-state right.

But it is the utter political defeat of that contract with America which leaves Mr Hague with his current problem. There turned out to be no great voter desire for further right-wing radicalism. The focus groups are all telling William to get into the centre ground and scrap with Mr Blair there; there is to be no more "rolling back". Which means that the Tories have to show, as the Fifties Conservatives did, that they are every bit as committed to public provision as Labour are.

That's why Debbie and Chris, their wholesome election broadcast couple (just like a couple in a sex-education video, except without the sex), are always going on about postponed hip operations, not high taxes.

Fine. I agree with Hague that, for the time being, radical anti-statism has no appeal. But he is hampered by two factors. The first is that, whatever the Tories (too few of whom used public education) may choose to believe, their stewardship of some of the public services was a disaster (a real one, not a "perceived" one).

After nearly 20 years of Tory custodianship, Britain is beaten only by Poland and Ireland for levels of illiteracy and innumeracy. It will take some time for this malign legacy to be dissipated. As yet, there has been no admission of guilt.

The second is that the most obvious symbol of the bad old Tory past from which any party might wish to be free, is probably its hostility towards Europe. Whatever the polls may seem to say, if Mr Hague had wanted to signal a real change of heart to the electorate, he would have begun to embrace Europe, not continued to disparage it. Then he could have had a productive, bloody battle with the Tebbits and other ghosts of Conservatism's past, eventually win, and be master in his own house. And being Clarkey over Europe might then have allowed him to be a bit more Widdecombing over funding. He flunked it.

Even so, it is clear that Majorism, not Thatcherism, is the destiny of the party. It is to become, once again, the party of volunteers and bourgeoisie oblige, the Women's Institute and garden shows. But not, I think, of government. They'll be free of that.