Hague must convince country his party is ready to govern

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Indy Politics

Twenty-three years after his Conservative party conference debut the stakes for William Hague are much higher than they were when he addressed the floor as a precocious 16-year-old.

Twenty-three years after his Conservative party conference debut the stakes for William Hague are much higher than they were when he addressed the floor as a precocious 16-year-old.

Now he must use his keynote speech to convince a sceptical British public that he is ready to be the next prime minister. He is due to speek this afternoon at the conclusion of the Tories' four-day annual conference which has been notable for its high spirits and unity.

For the first time since their humiliating 1997 electoral loss, the Tories are enjoying opinion poll results that put them in a dead heat with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government, reeling from attacks over fuel price protests and miserly state pensions.

Hague's aides said he will tell party delegates and a national audience that the opposition party is "beyond doubt" ready to return to power.

That's been a major theme during the conference, which may be the Tories' last before the next general election if Blair calls it in May as expected.

Hague and his deputies have spent the week parading before some 11,000 delegates and hundreds of journalists in this seaside resort - eager to introduce not only their policies but also themselves.

With his inexperienced team that includes few household names, Hague's "shadow cabinet" has been eclipsed in the past by former party leaders, such as ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Treasury chief Kenneth Clarke, whose outspoken opinions drew attention away from the party leadership.

This week, Hague has successfully relegated those former heavyweights to minor roles. Though party divisions over Europe continued to simmer, Hague's promise to keep Britain out of the euro for the life of the next Parliament and his go-slow approach to European integration dominated the debate.

"I don't think he could have changed the party like he has, united it, lifted it up and given it a new direction if he wasn't a strong leader," said Robert Pettigrew, a 22-year-old Conservative Party member on the Portsmouth City Council.

Patrick Dunleavy, a government professor at the London School of Economics, agreed that Hague has largely been an asset to the Tories.

"The average Conservative's willingness to think about voting Labor has certainly declined," Dunleavy said. "The problem is that he hasn't reached people outside the party."

Hague has been trying to do that in recent months with populist policies such as cutting the gasoline tax in response to fuel protests, taking a hardline approach to crime and promising to turn away "bogus" asylum seekers.

Seeking to reach beyond the party's traditional base, Hague opened this week's conference by offering new policies to tackle the problems of inner cities.

His personal popularity ratings still lag far behind Blair, and some of his efforts to change his image have backfired, such as his recent confession that he drank 14 pints of beer a day as a teen-ager.

"He is very inept at trying to portray that he is one of the people," said Jean McKay-Haynes, a 69-year-old Tory, who said she was won over by Hague's confident performance at this year's conference. "I think he is putting that behind him. He seems to have got the message that he should just be a serious politician."

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