It doesn't matter if Hague's policy cupboard is bare

At the time of Mr William Hague's first conference speech, our great newspapers were exposing the activities of someone styling himself the Bishop of Medway. The bogus bishop was in the habit of hanging about Euston station in the hope - sometimes realised - of luring youths from Scotland and the North-west, newly arrived in London, into all manner of vice. On the day of the 16-year-old Mr Hague's speech at Blackpool I was lunching with the parliamentary sketchwriter Mr Frank Johnson and with Lord St John of Fawsley.

At the time of Mr William Hague's first conference speech, our great newspapers were exposing the activities of someone styling himself the Bishop of Medway. The bogus bishop was in the habit of hanging about Euston station in the hope - sometimes realised - of luring youths from Scotland and the North-west, newly arrived in London, into all manner of vice. On the day of the 16-year-old Mr Hague's speech at Blackpool I was lunching with the parliamentary sketchwriter Mr Frank Johnson and with Lord St John of Fawsley.

"Where do they pick them up?" Lord St John asked. "Euston station?"

The consensus among Tory politicians was that, impressively though young William had performed, he would never be heard of again. After all, the party conference threw up all sorts of striking characters who, after their week of fame, returned to the political undergrowth. Who now remembers Miss Joan Hall of Keighley, even though she sat as member for that constituency from 1970 to 1974?

Mr Hague has not turned out like that. No Joan Hall he. His only setback has been his election as leader in 1997. Or, for a time, it appeared that this would be so - that he would be the only leader of the 20th century apart from Austen Chamberlain to fail to become prime minister. Now everything is changed.

This has had very little to do with Mr Hague. He can claim credit for plugging away at Prime Minister's Questions every week and, an achievement in the circumstances, for not allowing himself to become daunted. The change has come about because of Mr Tony Blair or, rather, because of the voters' lowered estimation of Mr Blair, whether measured by focus groups of one sort or another or by the polls.

No one knows quite why the Prime Minister's popularity fell so far, so fast. I do not claim to know myself. Nor do the Tories know. They are content to accept the gifts which the mysterious gods of politics have bestowed upon them and to make no further inquiries for the moment.

What has happened to Mr Blair after the fuel crisis of 2000 is comparable to what happened to Harold Wilson after the devaluation of 1967 or to John Major after the exchange-rate expulsion of 1992. The Wilson parallel is perhaps more relevant because in both periods we have a Labour prime minister leading a party which is considered to be "the natural party of government" and is believed to be sure of winning the next election - together with a leader of the opposition who is thought to be unelectable.

Just before the 1970 election I remember Wilson asking the morning press conference (it was being held in a Westminster church hall) whether any of the assembled journalists could remember when a party last won an election with its leader behind that party in the opinion polls. Answer came there none, though the answer that Wilson was expecting was "never". As far as I know, Mr Blair has not yet asked the same question about Mr Hague. But numerous others have already done so, with the implication that he will never become prime minister because of his personal qualities, or lack of them.

Sir Edward Heath was depreciated as a winner of votes on more or less the same grounds as Mr Hague is today. Sir Edward did not go so far as to get married, as Mr Hague has done, but he took up sailing as Mr Hague has embraced judo, the latter going so far as to boast the other day that he had recently strangled an opponent, who was fortunate enough, happily, to survive the assault.

There are admittedly differences between the Yorkshire Strangler and Sir Edward. The latter had, still has, a good head of hair; while the former is as bald as a billiard ball. No bald man has been elected prime minister since Winston Churchill in 1951. Another difference is that Sir Edward contested the 1970 election with a whole filing-cabinet full of policies; whereas Mr Hague's cupboard looks distinctly on the bare side. Indeed, several of my more earnest colleagues have criticised him on precisely that account.

But Sir Edward soon had to jettison his central policy of noninterference by the state and to adopt its exact opposite. What were his policies worth in the miners' strike, or the Labour government's policies in the IMF crisis of 1976? What could policies of any description have done to avoid or mitigate the other financial crises which I have already cited and which produced lasting political effects?

The answer is: nothing at all. Even our adoption of floating exchange-rates in 1972 (previously seen by savants as an international-financial cure-all) did nothing to avoid the humiliation of 1976. It is true that a policy of progressively cutting the tax on fuel would probably, though by no means certainly, have avoided Mr Blair's humiliation of September 2000. But he does not want to adopt it; while Mr Hague does, or I think he does.

What the voters mean by "policy", inasmuch as they bother with the word at all, is a party's capacity to "stand for" something. Mr Hague claims to stand for everybody. But then, so does Mr Blair. So no doubt does Mr Charles Kennedy as well, though I cannot for the moment remember precisely when he made the claim. Several categories are nevertheless excluded from the Strangler's embrace: idlers, benefit-cheats, dishonest asylum-seekers and Islington-dwellers.

Indeed, I now find myself belonging simultaneously to the only two groups in the British Isles about whom it is possible to say anything whatever without fear of retribution or even rebuke: the Welsh, and people who live in Islington, curiously enough the oldest metropolitan centre of Welsh immigration owing to its former connection with the dairy trade. In fact or, rather, according to the statistics (which is not quite the same thing), Islington is the third most deprived of the London boroughs. But this is not the picture which Mr Hague wishes to display before his envious and mean-spirited audience. We can all fling in a handful or two of phrases: dinner parties ... wine bars ... chattering classes ... Rioja ... Chianti ... polenta ... Volvos.

Mr Andrew Marr, who is doing well in his new job at the BBC, hazarded that Mr Hague was reviving the distinction of the early 18th century between the Tories as the country party and Labour as the Whigs - arrogant, metropolitan, well connected and rich. He tried this one out on BBC2, where it seemed to go down all right, but it played less well on the Nine O'Clock News, where Mr Peter Sissons briskly instructed Mr Marr to drop the philosophy - though to me it sounded more like history - and to get down to Mr Hague's tax plans instead.

Happily, or alas, they do not yet exist. Certainly Mr Michael Portillo did not tell us anything about them when one would have expected him to say a word or two. He was more preoccupied with coming out as a Spaniard and with proclaiming a gospel of toleration which is not shared by Miss Ann Widdecombe. Both the advance publicity for last week and even the subsequent analysis were that the party was moving more towards Mr Portillo than towards Miss Widdecombe. For this interpretation I could see no evidence, whether in the conference audience or in Mr Hague's speech.

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