Hedgehog Hague goes foraging for a stronger Tory image

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Focus group research is being used to help guide William Hague's leadership of the Conservative Party. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, watches Tory scorn for Labour's techniques turn to a more flattering imitation.

Mr Hague is a hedgehog, a spiky, slow and rather flea-ridden creature with a reputation for getting crushed in the middle of country roads, according to focus group work for the Conservatives before last week's party conference.

But party advisers hope that the basic research - with more to follow soon - will show Mr Hague making a good mark on public perceptions.

They hope that with careful guidance he can be turned from one of the least-known Conservative leaders into a star; outshining John Major, and even Margaret Thatcher, in terms of personal appeal.

According to the research, conducted by ICM with focus groups in Leeds, Slough and Sutton Coldfield,Tony Blair was seen as a man of action, and a decent family man - a "lion" of a leader.

When the panels were asked what animal Mr Hague reminded them of, they variously came up with answers like the hedgehog or the pussycat. The most flattering comparison was with a Yorkshire terrier, with plenty of bark.

But a Tory source told The Independent yesterday that the findings were unsurprising, given the fact that most people did not known a thing about the leader. "They tend to project on to him all the character flaws they see in the Conservative Party, that caused them to kick us out of office so vigorously."

When the panel members were shown videos of Mr Hague questioning Mr Blair in the Commons, they tended to perform a somersault. One panel member is reported to have told ICM: "I don't think of him as a weasel or rodent now."

That can only get better, with last week's conference coverage certain to have improved his overall ratings.

The fact that the Tories are using focus groups will be seen as another leaf taken from Labour's book - following on from the new caring, sharing image that Mr Hague tried to create at Blackpool.

But Blackpool has also left continuing tensions within the Tory ranks. Mr Hague was warned yesterday that he could face severe difficulties if he tried to ditch his compromise on the single currency - saying that the Tories would remain opposed "for the foreseeable future".

There have been repeated hints that Mr Hague is planning to return to the 10-year embargo of the euro on which he contested the leadership election in July, even if that meant the shadow cabinet resignation of pro-Europeans like David Curry, the agriculture spokesman. If Mr Curry were forced out, he could be followed by other frontbenchers.