Hague's 100 Days: Tory leader finds little comfort at the end of the road

Click to follow
The Independent Online
William Hague celebrated his 100th day as Tory leader yesterday with his future in the balance. Votes are being counted this morning in a poll to determine whether his programme of reform is endorsed by party members. Ian Burrell joined him on the last stage of his 18-day, 5,000-mile tour of Britain. "I have to say I didn't think I was going to be as impressed as I was," thrilled Diane Dick, the organising secretary of Henley Conservatives, moments after her first encounter with the Tory leader, William Hague. "I was expecting to be disillusioned."

Mr Hague's image has been much tarnished recently by the egg-throwing of malcontent Tory grandees, who object to his modernising, and by widespread sniggering in the media at his attempts to throw off his young fogey tag.

Yesterday backbenchers joined in the carping. Nicholas Winterton, a member of the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee, said Mr Hague's planned changes could sweep away too many of the party's traditions and, eventually, its fundamental political principles.

"We don't need to have a Stalinist ... situation in the Conservative Party, dramatically to change what we actually believed in," he said. "We actually want to renew what we already believe in and carry this forward to the people, and I believe that what is being done is not going to achieve that, and quite a lot of people in the country are very concerned."

Ms Dick had also been concerned. "The media has tried to portray him as Bad Boy Billy in his baseball cap," she said. "But thankfully that didn't come across at all."

Like the 200 other party activists who loudly applauded him on the final leg of his tour of Britain in Berkshire on Thursday night, Ms Dick was charmed by the new leader and enthusiastic about his plans for changing the party.

The problem for Mr Hague is that despite his travels - his team claim he has spoken to 10,000 people - he has staked his future on the votes or abstentions of hundreds of thousands of other Tories, who may still view him as Bad Boy Billy.

Central Office sources admit that barely one-third of the 300,000 party members - there were more than a million of them in the 1970s - are expected to vote on what amounts to the most radical programme for reforming the modern party since it began in 1867.

Ms Dick is only too well aware of the grass-roots mood.

"I know because of my position in the office that there have been a fair amount of spoiled papers, a fair amount of people who put them in the bin," she said. "I think they didn't want to show disloyalty by voting 'No' but they didn't want to vote 'Yes' because they were effectively being asked two questions with one answer."

These are worrying signs for Mr Hague, who has made the Tory reform referendum into a "back me or sack me" vote on his leadership credentials. He faces the prospect of trying to claim a mandate for his changes with the backing of less than a third of the party membership.

Mr Hague told The Independent that he was aware of opposition to what he described as a "change in the culture of the party" but that he felt vindicated by the response of party activists to his plans.

"Clearly there are always people who are wanting to see whether a new leader will lift them up and invigorate them for the future and some people that are cautious about change. That's bound to be the case in any organisation where the leader proposes some big changes," he said. "But people have left almost unanimously in favour of what I have been proposing."

Yet the support of past and present members is far from unanimous. His leadership style has been criticised recently by Lord Tebbit, Baroness Thatcher and Alan Clark MP, who also sits on the powerful 1922 executive.

Thoughts of these divisions may have been in his mind earlier in the day, when he visited the Unipart factory in Oxford as part of his "Listening Tour". During the visit he attended a "creative problem-solving" session, which involved employees forming a circle to decide what to do "When Cultures Collide".

Intrigued by the process, the Tory leader observed: "You never know, it might be used by a political party."

One of his Smith Square colleagues promptly muttered: "Do you think we should have a 1922 Committee circle?"

Mr Hague's reforms are based on six watchwords; unity, democracy, openness, decentralisation, integrity and involvement. They are a response to growing demands for greater devolution of power to the party membership, particularly in the process for choosing a new leader. But there are fears on the 1922 Committee that the changes could destabilise the parliamentary party.

No such qualms existed at the Berkshire College of Agriculture, when Mr Hague was introduced as the "next prime minister" and received with a standing ovation in what he must hope will be a forerunner of the Blackpool conference, a week on Tuesday, where the ballot result will be announced.

As Mr Hague promised to create "the greatest volunteer party in the Western world," Yvonne Manisier, chairman of the women's branch of Slough Conservatives, said: "A new look to the party is coming. I shall tell [members] to back William Hague all the way."

But by then the ballot had already closed.

Many Tory traditionalists will cast their votes according to their reactions to images of the new leader in his "Hague"-embossed baseball cap and drinking with revellers at the Notting Hill carnival in August.

For some, like Ms Dick, the new leader should have spent more time getting his message across personally before laying his position on the line.

"I don't think that the vast majority of the grass-roots members understand how important this is going to be," she said. "Because if it's 'No', I don't know where we are going to go from here."

Summer of discontent

June 19. Elected youngest leader of the Tory party this century, aged 36, he pledges to modernise the party.

July 23. Announces unprecedented ballot of party membership on reforms.

August 4. Is widely mocked after turning up at a Cornish theme park in a "Hague" baseball cap in what is seen as an attempt to appear youthful.

August 25. Poses for photographers at Notting Hill carnival, blowing whistles and drinking coconut punch with fiancee Ffion Jenkins.

September 8. Begins tour of Britain to woo grass roots Tory support.

September 14. Makes gaffe on Breakfast with Frost as he accuses Tony Blair of shabby behaviour in making political capital out of Princess Diana's funeral. Draws criticism from senior Tories. Hugh Dykes MP defects to LibDems.

September 21. Warns party membership "Back Me or Sack Me" on programme of reforms.