Hague's army find new looks old

Grass-roots Toryism: In Windsor to inspect the restored castle, a coachload of Conservatives from Winchester consider William Hague's task of rebuilding his party
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THE COACH was late. I had almost given up on the Denmead branch of the Winchester Conservative Association when their charabanc arrived at Windsor Castle. They were there to inspect the refurbishment of the semi-state apartments which burned down in the dramatic royal fire of 1992. I was there to inspect the refurbishment which William Hague is in the process of undertaking on the Tory party which burned down in the dramatic general election of 1997. We had come equipped with Thermos flasks, sensible shoes and rainwear in case the weather took a turn for the worst.

The Winchester folk had got in just in time. At the end of the month the Queen takes up residence in the castle for the summer and the apartments, which were most fully reconstructed after the great fire of 1992, will be closed to the public. Young William Hague's deadline is somewhat further off, but then the task he faces is a good deal more daunting.

Today the Tory leader takes the first step. At a special conference in Harrogate, the party will announce the results of Mr Hague's ballot of the party members on what he has billed as "the most radical and comprehensive reforms to a political party in modern British political history". They consist of everything from voting reform to the suggestion of quenching the Tories' flaming torch logo, first lit by a triumphalist Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands war and, heaven forfend, of changing the Tory traditional royal blue to a more subtle mauve.

The first stage in the Hampshire Tories regrouping was a loo break. It had been a long journey after all. They had set out for Windsor in Berkshire at 8.30am and it was almost 11 o'clock now. "A lot of seats will change hand at the next election," blustered Don Stewart, a councillor, as we waited for the others to catch up. "We have a good chance of winning at the next election," he said. But it was old Tory talk. As the party passed through the group ticket entrance, and underwent a split so that factions could progress each at its own pace, I decided that the voice of grass-roots Toryism might better be heard by eschewing those who held official positions. I tagged along with one of the party's stalwart social organisers, the aptly named Margaret Raffle.

"I rather like that chandelier," said Mrs Raffle as we entered the upper ward to begin the official tour of the rooms, "but it's a little too grand for my kitchen."

"It would touch the floor, actually," said her fellow housewife and function organiser Myra Hulme, dismissively, as she took charge of the guide book and our progress around the royal home .

"What a splendid throne," said Mrs Raffle as we entered the Queen's guard chamber where stands the great ivory chair which some Indian maharajah presented to Queen Victoria in 1851. It spoke of confidence and certainty, something which the Tories have lost since the high days of Thatcherism. All political careers end in tears, the late Enoch Powell once memorably said. Perhaps all political ideologies do too, as untidy events overtake their neat formulations. Thatcherism in the end undermined the Conservative Party because its freeing of markets, which so drastically diminished the power of the unions, also over time inexorably undermined the economic security of many Thatcher supporters too.

Even among the Winchester group there was evidence of that. Gordon Watson, now in his late seventies, was made redundant from his job as a valuer when his jewellery firm crashed in the first Thatcher recession. He and his wife, Joan, life-long Conservatives, remained loyal even then; but the poll tax, VAT on fuel and the party's general indifference to old- age pensioners eventually brought them to resign and even to vote for the Referendum Party at the last election.

"We're just above the benefit level. We clothe ourselves from jumble sales now," said Mrs Watson, a feisty crop-haired 76-year-old, sporting in evidence a loud long-collared shirt which must have been fashionable in the late Sixties. "Life is not comfortable."

"There's a lot of Chinese stuff around," Mrs Raffle said. She was not referring to donations from dubious drug-runners to Tory party funds, which Mr Hague intends to ban along with all other foreign donations. We had moved into the King's Dining Room where a fine portrait of a mandarin dominates one alcove. But Mrs Hulme had a view on foreign donations. "We need reform," she said. "People want to know what's going on. Before it was under-cover, which made it difficult to fund-raise locally. People would rather give to a charity for cancer or children."

Next came St George's Hall, the start of the area most seriously damaged by the fire in the annus horribilis of 1992. "There was considerable debate about the restoration," said the guide. "Should the damaged rooms be completely restored or replaced from scratch?"

Some similar decision faces Mr Hague, who has been as cunning as the castle's craftsmen in the design of his reforms. On the surface they offer greater democratisation, but in reality they strengthen the centre and the influence of the leader. The party's new governing body, the Board, will in effect be dominated by nominees of the leader. And although constituencies will still make the final decision on candidates, their choice will come from a central "approved list" to weed out the "clearly unsuitable". The one-person- one-vote reform will make Mr Hague far harder to dislodge than his predecessors - both Edward Heath and Mrs Thatcher would have survived the manoeuvres to oust them had the system been in place in their day.

The Tories of Winchester know all this, and yet they accept it with a weary resignation which perhaps explains why only 25 per cent of the party's claimed membership are reported to have actually voted in today's ballot. Captain FN Buckler RN, of Winchester, was one who did vote, but gnawing at an ice-cream cone with grim touristical determination, he poured scorn comprehensively on one member, one vote, quotas for women, tokenistic votes on the manifesto and most of the other Hague reforms.

"Things like changing the Conservative Political Centre to the Conservative Policy Forum doesn't seem particularly brilliant. It is replacing the old way of passing up ideas with a place for set-speech formalities. The grassroots want real mechanisms to offer subjects for inclusion." And as for ditching Tory blue? "Absolutely stupid," said his wife, Tessa, "like BA [British Airways] changing their wretched tails."

And yet what is the alternative? The Winchester Tories cling to old certainties like driftwood, but the great Conservative contradiction, of trying to support both deregulated markets and the traditional values which markets subvert, has taken its toll. A sense of disarray is the common factor among the rank and file. "The trouble with Tony Blair is that he is a ruddy Tory," said Mrs Hulme. Isn't that, in her view, a good thing? "No, he's in the wrong party," she said. Politics is as much about tribe as policy, it seems.

At the end of the tour, Gordon and Joan Watson made their way back to the coach park and its Traditions of Britain tea shop with its shrink- wrapped slices of quiche and gift jars of lemon curd. They had been much taken with the castle's restoration at the heart of which is an entirely new room, the Lantern Lobby, a modern gothic extravagance of light oak and pastel-shaded glass. This vestibule was built where once had stood the chapel which was the seat of the conflagration. From sacred to secular, it seemed as much a metaphor of our changing times as the pre-packed individual portions of heritage Britain. "The craftsmanship was amazing," Mrs Watson said. "It's been done so cleverly that, though it's new, it looks old." Which is precisely what William Hague knows he has to do with the Conservative Party.