How to be supreme loser of the political universe

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The Independent Online

There is a school of thought to which I may have contributed and which asserts that Mr William Hague is unfairly maligned, put upon, the victim of injustice all round. Why, he might even turn up at Ms Cherie Booth's new chambers specialising in human rights and ask her to take him on as a deserving case.

The case for Mr Hague goes like this: here he is, working away, making jokes at Mr Tony Blair's expense, winning points victories at Prime Minister's Questions, and the voters resolutely refuse to be impressed. They may have gone off Mr Blair - "arrogant", "conceited" and so forth - but that does not mean they have acquired any admiration, still less affection, for Mr Hague; while Mr Charles Kennedy is still remembered, if at all, as the chap with red hair who used to be on those quiz shows on television.

Mr Kennedy is certainly unfortunate. Last Wednesday, for example, he asked Mr Blair why old age pensions took a decreasing proportion of rising government resources; answer, apart from bluster, came there none. Mr Hague, by contrast, is not deserving of such sympathy. His spell as leader has been distinguished by excessive loyalty to some people; no loyalty at all to others; a failure to grasp political opportunities when they are presented wrapped in pale blue ribbon; not least, a series of misjudgements.

An example of the last concerns Mr Michael Ashcroft. Why did Mr Hague have to be involved with Belize's ambassador to the United Nations in the first place? We all know the Conservative Party is short of money. Surely it would have been more sensible to assemble a collection of smaller donors - of little Ashcrofts - than to rely on one big benefactor? Indeed, such was Mr Hague's dependence on his treasurer that he had to plead with Mr Blair over the telephone to Lisbon to lean on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee to allow Mr Ashcroft through an already wide-meshed net.

Lean on the committee Mr Blair then did. Several people have asked me why he felt himself to be obligated to Mr Hague. The answer is that prime ministers and leaders of the opposition tend to stick together: like barristers for opposing sides or specialist journalists from rival newspapers. I am reminded of what Bonar Law said to H H Asquith after the King's Speech of 1912: "I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session. I hope you will understand."

Far from being vicious to the Prime Minister, Mr Hague was asking a favour which Mr Blair granted. More puzzling is why the members of the committee agreed to do the Prime Minister's bidding. After all, George Thomson, the chairman, knew the People's Party at its most nasty; Brenda Dean mixed with some rough customers in her days with the print unions; while Douglas Hurd is one of nature's head prefects. Why, after his flagrantly improper intervention, these peers were incapable of telling Mr Blair to take a dive off the Terrace is a mystery to me.

Instead they caved in - or came up with a compromise whereby Mr Ashcroft would be ennobled only if he divested himself of his responsibilities to Belize and took up residence in this country. The idea of a conditional life peerage was duly denounced as a constitutional outrage by Lord Cranborne, Sir Edward Heath and Lord St John of Fawsley.

Mr Ashcroft said, with apparent seriousness, that he wished to be known as Lord Ashcroft of Belize and that he intended to work on behalf of that land from his new position in the Lords. Mr Hague then said that he was making a joke about his title, rather as the Sun does - "a bit of fun" - when it is caught out in some enormous whopper. The Conservative leader was unclear about whether Mr Ashcroft could continue representing Belize in the House of Lords rather than at the United Nations. There the matter messily rests, though it is by no means apparent who, or which body, is to decide whether Mr Ashcroft has satisfied the examiners and can on that account take up his seat.

Several commentators have written that Mr Hague's active support for Mr Ashcroft is a mistake because it "reminds people of the sleaze" of Mr John Major's last years; for all the world as if the Ashcroft affair partook of some quite different quality, not sleaze at all but something else entirely. This, as old Euclid used to say, is absurd.

Politically Mr Hague's error is that his love affair with Mr Ashcroft prevents him from bringing any conviction to his attacks on Mr Blair's appointments to the Lords. He is, as the lawyers say, estopped. If Tony has his cronies, so assuredly has William also, though I would support a knighthood (not a peerage) for Mr Sebastian Coe for his services to athletics rather than to Mr Hague. Altogether, indeed, the House of Lords has not proved a productive area for Mr Hague, more killing field than happy hunting ground.

For this he has only himself to blame, his combination of obstinacy and indecision. The precise details of his acceptance of Lord Cranborne's 92 hereditary peers and his contemporaneous dismissal of Lord Cranborne would be tedious to recapitulate. It is enough to observe that, if Mr Hague had gone for a wholly elected second chamber with unchanged or even increased powers, he would have satisfied his party and created a genuine issue between him and Mr Blair.

The fate of the Rover car company is certainly not such an issue. The arrangements came about under a Conservative government. Mr Hague did not want to change them. As Mr Blair correctly observed at Prime Minister's Questions, all he can do is ask who knew what when. His only significant step in this region has been to replace tenacious Mr John Redwood with Mrs Angela Browning, who is about as effective as a sunshade in the Sahara.

Likewise he has dispatched Mr Michael Howard and Mr Peter Lilley to the back benches and promoted the novitiate Trappist Mr Archie Norman, a more respectable version of Mr Ashcroft. Can we please hear no more about how unappreciated Mr Hague is? In the meantime, the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee should be dissolved - or its members replaced.

Finally, something that is not Mr Hague's fault. I have long believed that columns should not be used to air personal grumbles. This, however, is a grumble on behalf of the people of England and Wales - or those who take an interest in politics. Every morning bar Monday I listen to Yesterday In Parliament on BBC long wave. Lately the last quarter of the programme has been devoted to excerpts from and commentaries on the Scottish Parliament which can be of little interest to most people outside Scotland.

I am not opposed to giving events in that parliament or in the Welsh Assembly wider coverage if it is justified. Indeed, I was better informed than the Prime Minister about the fall of the still unrecompensed Mr Alun Michael, for I watched it on Sky digital television while Mr Blair was on the front bench in the Commons. But spare us, please, the Scottish Parliament every morning!

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