'I think this government is trying to conduct politics as soap opera'

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Indy Politics

For a man emerging from one of the most torrid months faced by any party leader in recent history, William Hague is nothing if not resilient.

For a man emerging from one of the most torrid months faced by any party leader in recent history, William Hague is nothing if not resilient.

Yes, he is looking forward to Christmas with his family in Yorkshire, to visiting the Dome on New Year's Eve, and above all, to a skiing holiday with his wife in Montana.

He leans back casually - and at times a little perilously - on a chair at Conservative Central Office. The only obvious seasonal decoration is a painted wooden nativity scene donated by the Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat on a recent visit to London. Mr Hague does not appear complacent but he is, at the least, remarkably unruffled by the successive body blows of the last few weeks.

Partly, it seems, it's a matter of temperament. He quotes Willie Whitelaw's remark that no political event is ever as good or bad as it seems at the time and adds: "You have to remember that every day.

"We have had a rough few weeks. But it is the job of the captain to hold the helm steady and take the ship through and make sure we come out the other side. If you can't cope with being hit by an unexpected problem now and again, you shouldn't be in it in the first place." But it's also partly because he can say, at least of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare and Neil Hamilton, that they are now history in every sense of the word. The Hamilton case "is in the past. It has obviously been a very sad episode which, over the past two-to-three years, has done great damage to our party. But it's over now.

"The whole Jeffrey Archer problem arose from something that happened in 1987. Some of these things happened when I was at school, studying at business school in France or doing my first job. These things come back years later. It is frustrating; things like that have damaged our party. Now it is my job to move on from that. A lot of things have come to a head in the past few weeks; they can't come to a head again."

He is also wary about an invitation to draw lessons from Shaun Woodward's defection to Labour. "The Conservative Party is a tolerant and disciplined party. There is every room in the Conservative Party for people of different views on conscience issues and the European issue - although there has to be a clear party policy and discipline in following that policy. Here we have a party which I have set out to make more tolerant and open. People say after Shaun Woodward's disagreement over Section 28, that homosexuals are not welcome in the Conservative Party - what of load of rubbish. Here is a party where the leader votes for an age of consent at 16 and where candidates in the field are open about being gay. So it is not an intolerant party at all. That is the wrong message to draw from the Shaun Woodward affair.

"Just because you disagree with the leadership on one issue doesn't mean you stop being Conservative. Of course there has got to be room in a party for that to happen. At the same time I am insistent on a clear policy on Europe; the most important thing I have done so far is to give the Conservative Party a clear position on Europe. In the European elections, we won on the European policy - we didn't have anything else going for us." But that need not mean a break with Tories who oppose his hard line: "I disapprove strongly of people saying certain people should be deselected. Not only do I not approve of that, I actively discourage that."

But did he agree with Sir Tim Sainsbury that elections are won and lost on the centre ground? "It depends what you mean by the centre ground. People used to say that Margaret Thatcher couldn't win an election unless she moderated. What she understood was the centre ground was in a different position. The centre ground on Europe is where the Conservative Party is. In other areas, people have almost despaired about people doing anything - crime on their estates and so on. To try to tackle those things is not extreme or right wing. We have set out, in the Common Sense Revolution, a whole range of practical policies. They cannot be that extreme because some of them have already been adopted by the Government" - such as, he says, those on transport and on toughening welfare-to-work sanctions. "The centre ground should not mean finding the lowest common denominator of political opinion or the centre point that is equidistant between two opinions."

The most common criticism of Mr Hague is that he cannot translate his Commons triumphs into popular appeal in the country. He recognises the problem, but insists: "It is a cliché, a caricature. The greatest encouragement I get is going out round the country, not in the House of Commons ... I think the Government is actually in the business of promoting indifference to politics. It is systematically trying to diminish the substance of debate and conduct politics as soap opera and as photo-calls. I don't see it as part of my job to compete with that. Maybe that puts me at a disadvantage...

It is very clear what we have to do now - take to the country more successfully arguments that we have been winning in Parliament." Would he welcome a little more help from the Shadow Cabinet ? "We do have a lot of new people in the Shadow Cabinet. In the last two years I have changed almost the entire personnel of the Shadow Cabinet ... there are now only two of us who were in the cabinet at the general election ... the other 20 have all changed. People do say 'who and where are these people?'.

"Before they said, 'why have you got all those old faces round the Shadow Cabinet table for?' It takes time for them to get known. People like Theresa May, Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley [and] Bernard Jenkin are talented people. They don't lack in energy, talent, support. I want to get them more in the front line."

Mr Hague remains cagey about the role in which he will deploy Michael Portillo. "I welcomed him very much back into Parliament. There are going to be many roles for him in the future ... I will take that at my own pace." On Europe, one of the points which worried pro-Europeans like Mr Woodward was Mr Hague's determination on "flexibility" for member states to opt out of Europe-wide decisions they don't like. Mr Hague is adamant that this policy - including the pledge that he would block an enlargement treaty if such a provision was not included - applies only to future integration, not to the existing provisions of the Treaty of Rome.

But for all his courtesy to the pro-Europeans in his party, he will not be eliminating the harsh choice they will inevitably face come the election. For Mr Hague is, if anything, firmer than before on the crucial role he sees the euro playing as a central election issue. He has no intention of allowing the Government, as it would ideally like to do, to avoid the issue in the campaign. "The people in the country will make it a very important issue. I will make it a very important issue." Unless, of course, the Government changes its policy of being "committed to EMU in principle [and] to a referendum early in the next parliament".

He points out that the rules for funding referendums, announced by Jack Straw on Monday, would give pro-single currency parties an in-built advantage over the antis. "That sets the scene for the fact that the decision point on this is the next general election."

There is just a cheeky hint in Mr Hague's remarks that he thinks it just possible that the Prime Minister could yet bow before anti-euro forces and rule out single currency entry in the next parliament himself - to neutralise the euro as an election issue. The Tory leader certainly believes - with a good deal of justice - that the current defensiveness of the Government on euro entry, is already a real and overlooked success of the Tories' strategy.

"I think the position the Conservative Party took and the fact we then won the European elections on that position, strengthens and bolsters everybody who wants to keep the pound. If the Conservative Party had not been putting this case then the whole body politic would have conspired together to abolish the pound as it has done in some other European countries, where people have been given no real choice.

"They haven't been able to choose a party which didn't support EMU in a general election. Our party, even as an opposition with only 160-odd seats, has achieved something big, which is that there is not this feeling of inevitability about the euro, and we have shown people there is a clear choice."

The anti-euro message will now be spelt out across the country when Mr Hague - at last - makes the long promised tour in late January on a flat bed truck (which Conservative officials admit will inevitably not be wholly made in Britain, and will have some parts made in Europe). Mr Hague says lessons have been learned from all his travails over the London mayoralty - including new vetting procedures ensuring that candidates will be asked "some probing questions".

This will now be used for mayoral candidates in other cities. The strength of the party's democratic processes "will become more apparent when we come to the actual election of mayor. I suspect Londoners will not want a mayor who is an apparatchik of the party. That will be quite an advantage for us at the election ... I think it is all for the taking. Some of the people who have been laughing at our bits of discomfort in the last few weeks may be laughing on the other side of their face next May.

"There is a wider lesson here ... The more we go with the Blair Government, the more people will see the strength of allowing people genuine democracy. I don't think they want to see control freakery in a political party forever. They might have welcomed it in the Labour Party for a time because of what happened before. But I don't think people think that is sustainable over many years."

Our hour-long interview ends on a seasonal note. After Christmas Eve with his family in South Yorkshire, the day itself alone with Ffion in his constituency home in Richmond, and Christmas night dining with his wife and friends, Mr Hague will head south to join the Prime Minister and the Queen at the Dome. After that he'll be flying off to the slopes.

Before the election, Mr Hague admits, he had been a critic of the costs of the Millennium Dome. "But the decision was made by the [previous] government, and this one, to do it. Having spent that money, I think it's now the job of all politicians to make a success of it. So we shall go there and join in the party."

Given that almost every recent weekend off has been interrupted by some fresh horror, will he be keeping his mobile telephone switched on in the mountains of Montana?

"It won't work in the mountains," a smiling Mr Hague says firmly. "It may be switched on but it won't be ringing."

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