Alan Watkins: He didn't even hang around to clear up the mess

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The Independent Online

I do not suppose this will be of much consolation to Mr William Hague. But he may turn out to be only the first of several leaders of the Conservative Party in the 21st century to leave the job without having sampled the sweetstall at No 10. Labour leaders of the last century were well used to this melancholy experience. After Ramsay MacDonald, who did taste a few chocolate bars (though they made him sick in the end), the disappointed politicians, in addition to the stopgap Arthur Henderson, were George Lansbury, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith.

At least two of these would have made outstanding Prime Ministers. In a way, Mr Hague has nothing to complain about. Even so, he remains one of only two Tory leaders chosen in the 20th century to fail to reach No 10. The other was Austen Chamberlain. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in politics never say "never". In 2010 or whenever, the call may go forth: "Send for William. He is the only man who can save us now." But somehow I doubt it.

I was present at Mr Hague's impressive political baptism, which was carried out by total immersion at the Blackpool conference of 1977. Another member of the congregation was Mr Norman St John-Stevas, now Lord St John of Fawsley. This was a time when a child molester, the self-styled Bishop of Medway, was in the papers because of his habit of prowling round Euston for his own nefarious purposes. At the end of the 16-year-old Mr Hague's stirring oration, Lord St John turned to me and remarked: "Where do they pick them up? Euston Station?"

Few spectacles late on Thursday or early on Friday were so affecting as that of Mr Hague's colleagues, notably Mr Michael Portillo, swearing permanent loyalty to their leader. The one exception was Mr John Maples, who was sacked by Mr Hague as Shadow Foreign Secretary, after having been compelled to utter various anti-European noises in which he clearly did not believe ­ promising, for instance, to renegotiate our entire position inside the European Union, which remains the party's ridiculous policy today.

Mr Kenneth Clarke, emerging from his retreat with the Trappist monks of Notts, contented himself with observing that, while the Tory campaign had been fought on the "wrong issues", he could not at present stand for the leadership of his party owing to his position on Europe. At this stage of the evening the assumption was that Mr Hague would carry on whatever the result. No one ­ apart, presumably, from his nearest and dearest ­ knew then what was subsequently reported to have been Mr Hague's plan: that, even if the Tories succeeded in taking 20 or so seats off Labour (as they failed to do), he would still resign. This would have accounted for his demeanour in the campaign, going through the motions like a robot, or someone walking in a dream.

In 1997 Mr John Major was criticised by figures as different as Lord Biffen and the late Alan Clark for resigning on the day after polling day ­ half a day after Mr Hague resigned, as a matter of fact ­ and taking himself off to the Oval cricket ground. He was, his critics alleged, leaving a mess for others to clear up. The result was Mr Hague as leader. It now tends to be forgotten that he defeated Mr Clarke only in the third and final ballot, after Mr Clarke had led in the first two ballots.

Today the same charges can be made against Mr Hague. He likewise has kicked over the waste-paper basket, there is paper and ash and old plastic wrappers all over the carpet, and someone else has to wield the dustpan and brush. This may be unfair to Mr Hague. But it is certainly a plausible way of looking at the present position. What the papers misleadingly dub the Tory grandees (in a party whose grandees were dispatched by Lady Thatcher 20 years ago) had more or less agreed that he would lead the party till the referendum on the euro was held.

Mr Hague would naturally be at the head of the anti-forces. If he won, he would continue to lead the party up to and into the subsequent election, irrespective of whether it was to be held immediately after the referendum or in 2005 or 2006. If he lost, and the people voted for the euro, it would be time for another think. Mr Clarke would be able to contemplate re-entry into the higher politics, even though he would be well into his sixties by this time.

This scheme is now about as much use as a railway timetable. A decision has to be made before the House adjourns for the summer recess. The new leader is then presented to the bedraggled army at Blackpool in October, just as Mr Hague was to the somewhat less sorry rabble in the same dismal town in autumn 1997. It is hard to see how Mr Clarke can stand, not because he possesses what Mr Blair now claims for Labour as "One Nation" views, but because he could never lead the Conservatives in a campaign against the euro.

In other respects the procedure, to begin with, is the same as the one adopted in July four years ago. There is no need to parade the usual suspects yet again. Their incriminating photographs can be inspected in the papers every day. There are then several ballots till two candidates are produced. These are duly put to the bedraggled army for a final decision.

There is nothing in political logic which decrees that opposition to our entry into the euro or, indeed, to our remaining in the European Union at all should necessarily be accompanied by a belief in low taxation and public expenditure, a suspicion of asylum seekers and a liking for locking people up. But, more often than not, these views are united in the same Conservative person. Unless the party goes into rapid reverse over Europe, Mr Hague's decision to resign now means that the Conservatives can be led only by someone who is a continuation of Mr Hague by other means.

Perhaps Mr Portillo can play the magician. On election night he was asked by Mr Jeremy Paxman why he and his colleagues had not campaigned on health and education. Mr Portillo replied that they had not done so because health and education were "Labour issues". Naturally they were, Mr Paxman went on, if the Tories did not talk about them.

Mr Portillo looked incredulous, as if he had not succeeded in making himself entirely clear about what was, after all, a very simple matter. But then, he represents a new orthodoxy which has come over from the United States. It is to the effect that political parties have their own natural areas where other parties trespass at their peril or not, at any rate, to their advantage.

Such an attitude would have been incomprehensible to, say, R A Butler or Iain Macleod. More recently Mr Blair has succeeded in neutralising defence as a Conservative issue. He, or Mr Gordon Brown rather, has made the economy a Labour issue. The idea that certain topics are the exclusive and permanent property of one party or another is stultifying.

Mr Blair's unprecedented success and Mr Charles Kennedy's deserved triumph both seem to show that the voters want better public services and are prepared to pay for them. I write "seem to" because, though there is undoubtedly a demand for improved services, there may be no equivalent enthusiasm for meeting Mr Brown's bills when they come in. Mr Hague's moment would then have come at the next election, but it is too late for him now.