Hague may listen to Britain, but does he pay attention to Lilley?

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM STUDIOUSLY avoided Peter's gaze. Peter was a stony-faced picture of disinterest. Breaking up, as they say, is always hard to do.

Like a couple on the verge of an acrimonious split, the appearance together of William Hague and Peter Lilley yesterday had all the warmth of a Relate therapy session.

The occasion, a "Listening to Britain" meeting with the voluntary sector, was the pair's first public outing since the Tories were plunged into chaos by Mr Lilley's apparent break with Thatcherism.

For a man whose image has had more facelifts than Michael Jackson, Mr Hague was clearly at ease with yet another public relaunch of his party's commitment to caring Conservatism.

But from the moment he walked into the Mothers' Union headquarters in central London, separated from his deputy by three grey suits, no amount of forced smiles could hide the frostiness.

With the Tory leader perched on stage in a yellow Ikea chair and his deputy relegated to the hard seats in the audience, you certainly didn't need to be Desmond Morris to read the body language between the two men.

Mr Hague did all the speaking, while his deputy sat silently throughout the two-hour consultation meeting with Britain's leading voluntary groups.

Chaired by the newsreader Martyn Lewis, whose claim that there is too much bad news on television is probably shared by the Tories, the meeting heard that 24 new charities are launched every working day.

After polling a huge 33 per cent of the vote in last week's local elections, even the Conservatives are not about to claim charitable status.

The Tory leader had already made clear his intentions when he refused on Sunday publicly to state that Mr Lilley would not be moved in the coming shadow cabinet reshuffle.

However, any attempt at papering over the cracks in their relationship was ruined when one of the invited guests intruded on private grief.

Liz Sewell, director of Gingerbread, the lobby group for single parents, said most people in the voluntary sector had not forgotten Mr Lilley's other famous speech of recent years. "What I would very much like to get across is the impact that government attitudes and statements can have on the voluntary sector."

Mr Lilley shifted nervously in his seat, perhaps aware of the torrent of abuse about to descend. "I'm very interested that Mr Lilley is here, because his speech on lone parents at one of the conferences has gone into the English language. He said he had a `little list' of single mothers having children to get on the housing list."

Ms Sewell then delivered the coup de grace, an embodiment of the thoughts of every single Tory MP furious at Mr Lilley's recent reshaping of policy during the local election campaign: "I just think that when you make speeches, you should bear in mind their impact," she said.

Mr Hague nodded sagely and smiled the smile of a man about to file divorce papers. Mr Lilley, once described as the Niles Crane of British politics, turned a whiter shade of pale.