So far so good, but Europe remains a minefield

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The Independent Online
ONE YEAR on, does William Hague ever wish he hadn't taken the job? That he hadn't woken up that morning last June and unscrambled the deal he had sealed over champagne the previous evening to run as Michael Howard's No 2?

Sometimes, surveying his lack of impact on the opinion polls, wondering at Tony Blair's dominance of the political landscape, and weathering the back-biting from a handful of well-connected and contemptuous Commons tearoom malcontents, he probably does. Wouldn't it have been rather easier, he must occasionally feel, to let someone else lose the next election and be in pole position to grab the leadership in time for the one after that?

Well yes and no. Some perspective is needed here. Margaret Thatcher's first year as Opposition leader was if anything rather grimmer. She had to face the constant carping of Tory grandees who assumed she wouldn't last. There were jokes about her ignorance of foreign affairs. There were laments that the country hadn't warmed to her. By these standards, Hague has actually done rather well.

The presentational gaffes early in his leadership were exaggerated. Maybe the baseball cap didn't work; but it's baffling why he should have been criticised for turning up at the Notting Hill carnival. He has more ability to charm the party faithful than his two most recent predecessors, and he may even be cleverer than either of them.

He is probably the most natural platform speaker to lead the Tory party since Harold Macmillan. And apart from one or two lapses - like concentrating on Europe on the day the Bernie Ecclestone affair broke - he has performed consistently well at Commons Question Time. While this doesn't play in the country - as the polls bleakly demonstrate - it doesn't half cheer up his troops in Westminster.

He has made the prosaic but probably correct remark to one or two of his colleagues that the organisation needed to rebuild his shattered party would do better to focus on this summer's agricultural shows and October's university freshers' fairs than on Westminster.

He prevented the party imploding after the general election. He skilfully extracted the Tories from their opposition to a London mayor. It didn't collapse to third place in the local elections. And his transformation of the party into something closer to a modern democratic organisation was carried out with the minimum of fuss.

He has been indulgent on occasions. Allowing his Northern Ireland spokesman Andrew Mackay to holiday in Namibia during the Good Friday talks in Belfast was a mistake. But he showed some steel in his first, skilfully presented, Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. He was bold but right to replace Peter Lilley, who had performed poorly as shadow Chancellor, with Francis Maude, a political heavyweight who has both leadership potential and the huge advantage with the public of not having been part of the 1992-97 government.

He was more than a touch ruthless in dumping Alastair Goodlad, a nice man and unmistakably one of the old school Tory toffs. He was sensible to promote the brainy David Willetts to the Shadow Cabinet and to dispatch the high-risk Alan Duncan out of his command bunker to a junior frontbench job. And it was astute to bring one or two MPs like Damien Green from the highly capable 1997 intake.

So far so good. The real problems lie in the future. Over some of them he has little control. The prospect of electoral reform, if the British people vote for it, could hardly be more daunting. Given his own and the Tories' current rightish, non-centrist bent, he could find himself leading the one party incapable of taking power because no one wants to form a coalition with it.

But on others he does have some influence - and has not yet shown much sign of exercising it. Of these, by far the greatest is Europe. It's understandable that after John Major's heroic failure to hold a divided party together, Hague decided to bow to the majority take a clear position against British Emu entry in this or the next Parliament. But it leaves him dangerously boxed in.

Which is why the leading pro-Europeans in the party may still prove a long-term threat if they turn out to have been right all along. Not just Stephen Dorrell who, newly liberated from the Shadow Cabinet, sees himself as a contender in a future contest with Michael Portillo, but Ken Clarke, who at 57 can't be written off, and just happens to be giving the keynote speech at the Tory Reform Group today.

There are just the faintest signs, despite his ill-judged, deeply Euro- sceptic speech at Fontainebleau last month, that Hague is willing to allow Maude to steer the party to a more pragmatic stance on Emu. But the big question is how far the Europhobic fundamentalists - Michael Howard, David Heathcoat-Amory, John Redwood and others - will allow it to happen.

If the party stance does change, he may yet show the skill and intelligence to grow into a credible prime ministerial candidate.

If it doesn't, and British membership of the single currency becomes a reality, almost any other leader might be better placed to lead a post- Emu Tory party.