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Comment: Virtue has not exactly triumphed for Mr Hague

THIS WEEK I had intended to declare this column a Hoddle-free zone. Indeed, I had indicated as much to the editor. However, the affair of the former England manager became not only part of politics but an illustration of the precise questions about Mr Tony Blair and Mr William Hague which I had meant to raise anyway. But first I should like to make a few points about Mr Glenn Hoddle himself.

One is that, since the war, there have been eight England football managers. In the same period there have been 11 prime ministers and 20 chancellors. Why, in that case, should the post which Mr Hoddle used to occupy be considered uniquely precarious?

Again, it is one thing to uphold freedom of conscience, of religion and of speech. It is something else entirely to impose such an alarming lady as Mrs Eileen Drewery - what a woman friend of mine would call "rather a worrying sort of person" - on a group of simple lads and to penalise them, as Mr Hoddle apparently did, if they speak of her in disrespectful terms. The Football Association was clearly failing in its duties in not calling him to order well before the World Cup. Though a beautiful player, he was neither a specially good manager nor a specially bad one. His success rate was below that of, in descending order, Sir Alf Ramsey at the top and Messrs Terry Venables and Ron Greenwood. It was the same as Walter Winterbottom's. Below them were, in descending order, Messrs Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor and, at the bottom, Don Revie. We now turn to that even less successful manager Mr Hague.

Last week a newspaper had the bright idea of sitting a collection of voters in the public gallery and asking them what they thought of his performance at Prime Minister's Questions. Most parliamentary sketchwriters and political columnists, including this one, have written that in these encounters Mr Hague usually wins on points and sometimes inconveniences Mr Blair.

This was why Mr Hague was given the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year award last November. Some of us on the panel had our doubts because of his poor showing in the opinion polls. But we accepted the argument that we were judging parliamentary performances and that the impression Mr Hague or anyone else made on the wider world was neither here nor there.

His performances at questions and in debate did not raise his reputation with the voters (so the argument went) largely because they did not know about them. Parliament was considered boring; the papers no longer reported its activities in any detail; even the Prime Minister paid it scant attention. But Mr Hague's true abilities would emerge in the end through a kind of osmotic process. Virtue would triumph.

But the voters who saw Mr Hague in action for a short time were not so impressed as the journalists had been over a longer period. They did not take to him at all. Last week admittedly did not see Mr Hague at his best. But the sample of citizens had observed him in the previous week as well. In his question on Mr Hoddle he was on shaky ground because Mr Blair had not instructed the FA to do anything.

In pursuance of his policy of sitting on television sofas early in the morning rather than on the government front bench later in the day, Mr Blair answered that yes, if Mr Hoddle had really said what he was reported to have said (and we all knew how unreliable the papers were), well, he probably ought to take his leave. It may be that the Prime Minister should have replied, in the tiresome catchphrase of a few years ago, that he could not possibly comment. But when everyone else in the land was putting in his or her two penn'orth, this would have seemed evasive.

No doubt Mr Blair had put up his finger to the wind of public opinion before saying what he did. But no rational person could have construed his remarks as an instruction to the FA. Nor is there the slightest evidence that the body paid any attention to them. Mr Hague made an extravagant, even false claim against Mr Blair and then approved, or appeared to approve, the very action - the dismissal of Mr Hoddle - which Mr Blair's observations were supposed to have brought about.

Mr Hague was being perfectly logical. Unlike him, I disapproved of Mr Hoddle's dismissal but should have disciplined or dismissed him when he first introduced Mrs Drewery (reminiscent of Mrs Erdleigh in Mr Anthony Powell's Music of Time) into the England dressing-room. "Look, Hod, old son," I should have said, "you are taking a diabolical liberty forcing that medium of yours on the lads. You are out of order. She goes, or you go."

Distinctions such as Mr Hague was trying to make, however logical they may be, do not come across in the rough-and-tumble of political debate. They come across less well now than they ever have. It is Mr Blair, with his muzzy brand of generalised goodwill, a kind of political wordzak, who appears the more "sincere" of the two.

In Mr Hague's place I should not try to imitate Mr Blair, which is what many of his colleagues want him to do. I should express my own views, which is what Margaret Thatcher did. She mixed economic liberalism with social authoritarianism. Mr Hague agrees with her about the economical liberalism. He has not experienced the conversion which Mr Michael Portillo claims to have undergone. But by instinct he is something of a social liberal as well, a bit of a libertarian. If left to his own devices he would almost certainly legalise cannabis and decriminalise harder drugs by treating them differently, whether as prescription drugs or as dangerous poisons.

There is a gap in the political market here, which the Liberal Democrats may yet fill if the Conservatives do not. Many citizens are by now thoroughly tired of the nanny state as supervised and extended by the present administration. The phrase, by the way, comes from Iain Macleod in his "Quoodle" column in the Spectator 1963-65. Not only can you not buy beef on the bone. Grown men and women can no longer buy aspirins in any except tiny quantities. There is, however, nothing to prevent anyone from visiting several shops in a single or successive days to build up a stock. It is a nuisance, that is all.

There is, I fear, little chance that Mr Hague will move down libertarian paths. There is a greater chance that the colleagues will dispose of him before he can do anything of the kind. The procedure for removal has now changed. Fifteen per cent of or 25 Conservative MPs have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee asking for a vote of confidence in the leader. If he loses, even by only one vote, he has to resign and - this is the crucial change from the Tories' previous systems - cannot stand in any subsequent election. Nominations for the new leader are then asked for by the chairman. An election is held by MPs alone, presumably by exhaustive ballot rather than the alternative vote, until the number of candidates is reduced to two. The entire party membership is then allowed to choose between these two.

When these rules were framed, I and others wrote that Mr Hague would make it his business to ensure that he was virtually irremovable. We were wrong. The party members have no means of registering their unfailing loyalty to a sitting leader. Indeed, the new rules make it almost as easy to dismiss Mr Hague as it was to get rid of Mr Hoddle.