Tory Conference: Hague offers balance of apology and pride

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William Hague yesterday began the long-haul task of rebuilding the fighting spirit of his crushed party. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, analyses the leader's wind-up speech.

Conservative representatives in Blackpool gave their leader a standing ovation for a skilled and accomplished performance in which he tried to bury the May defeat and make his party fit for government once more.

In a key passage, Mr Hague said: "I want to tell you about a changing Conservatism that acknowledges its mistakes. But I also want to tell you about a proud Conservatism that has served this nation well and will do so again."

There were fewer apologies than Michael Portillo made in his conference fringe speech on Thursday night. Nothing was said of the higher tax burden and the imposition of value-added tax on fuel; or for the scapegoating of single mothers, rises in hospital waiting lists, crime rates, unemployment, inner city riots or poor educational standards. While Mr Hague appealed for tolerance, he also expressed an unshakable belief in the values of traditional family life.

His big apology was for the 1990 decision - with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and John Major as chancellor of the exchequer - to take sterling into the European exchange rate mechanism.

Yet Mr Hague was quick to point out that almost everyone in the country had backed the decision at the time.

As for the euro, Mr Hague stuck to the Shadow Cabinet compromise formula, saying the Tories would not favour abolishing the pound for the foreseeable future.

But, using a phrase that will disturb the party's diehard Euro-sceptics - those who believe that too much power has already been ceded to Brussels - Mr Hague, on the subject of European integration, said: "In my opinion, we are near that limit now."

The strongest passages of the speech were reserved for Labour, although the spin-doctors' promised attack on Mr Blair's "bossiness" did not appear in the final version.

One word Mr Hague repeated a number of times was "community" - one of the basic words in Tony Blair's new Labour vocabulary.

The Conservative analysis, confirmed by the leader, is that Labour lacks core values, and their deep-seated cynicism will eventually generate public contempt. Mr Hague said he hoped for success in the local elections in May, where Labour would be defending a record of poor services and high taxes - the test on which the Conservatives suffered a landslide defeat in the general election.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, commented: "No matter how hard William Hague tries, he cannot disguise two fundamental problems. Their policies were wrong and remain wrong. And their claims of unity are utterly bogus, as the continuing conflict over Europe shows."