Cool reception for embattled Hague

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The Independent Online
IF WILLIAM Hague, the beleaguered Tory leader, was hoping to shake off his political blues with a spot of campaigning in Scotland yesterday, he was destined to be disappointed. It was a losing struggle trying to keep the agenda firmly tartan.

He was bright-eyed, eager and buoyant in the face of never-ending adversity. Like a man who has been on too many self-development seminars he reeled off the gifts he came armed with - enthusiasm, humour, good sense and good policies. He insisted he felt most welcome in Scotland "unlike other party leaders".

He was not referring, it transpired, to a predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who could always depend on a chilly reception in Scotland, but to Tony Blair, whose personal contribution to the campaign, it is rumoured, has been kept to a bare minimum by the Scottish Labour Party.

Mr Hague soldiered on against a welter of questions about his divided Westminster troops, and newspaper reports that there were plots under way to get rid of both him and his deputy, Peter Lilley. He had, he insisted, confidence in Mr Lilley and he was sure he would still be Tory leader at the next general election.

The only good piece of news he received was the postponement of his planned appearance next Tuesday before the executive of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs. That audience in the headmaster's study will have to wait.

Meanwhile, it was on to Perth cattle market, where Tory loyalty survives among the old, tweeded farmers. Perth was once a Tory stronghold, but is now held by the SNP.

After some uneventful flesh-pressing, Mr Hague relaxed - but not for long. There was the harmless introduction to a market official who said: "You've had a rough few days." Mr Hague moved the conversation on quickly, neither confirming nor denying tough times. "And you've had a tough few years yourself," he said to the official.

"It was a human response," said the official later. "It does not mean I'm voting Tory. But the man has a hard job with his party so split."

And party division, not the politics of farming, were most on the minds of two elderly farmers caught up in the scrum for pictures of Mr Hague, which almost disrupted the cattle market sale.

"Okay I admit it," said one, with a terrible confession. "I do vote Tory. But that man's got an uphill job." His friend thought the problem was simple. "He's o'er young for the job."

After lunch it was off to Perth City Hall to start a walkabout in the town centre, followed by a motley band of Scottish nationalists. A local official scurried ahead of the leader, scouting out Tory voters and anyone who wanted to meet Mr Hague.

Loyalists were ferreted out, but it was impossible to entirely control the procedure. Two old women seemed to shrink against the wall when confronted by Mr Hague and his friendly handshake.

"I voted Tory all my life," said one afterwards. "I just lost faith in them. That's because they became so divided. And let's face it - they still are. I'll be voting for the Liberals."