Can Mr Hague's skinhead tendency win the election?

The Tory Party is back in business at Bournemouth.They, if no one else, now believe in Hague

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The latest Conservative Party battle cry is "Believing in Britain", but the real question, as the Tories gather in Bournemouth today, is whether Britain can believe in William Hague. At least Mr Hague has the luxury that, for the first time, the public will be listening to him. As we try to contemplate the possibility, if not the probability, that in just 213 days (assuming a 3 May election) he could be Prime Minister, even the media will be taking him seriously.

The latest Conservative Party battle cry is "Believing in Britain", but the real question, as the Tories gather in Bournemouth today, is whether Britain can believe in William Hague. At least Mr Hague has the luxury that, for the first time, the public will be listening to him. As we try to contemplate the possibility, if not the probability, that in just 213 days (assuming a 3 May election) he could be Prime Minister, even the media will be taking him seriously.

Mr Hague's best prospects for winning now depend on Labour making such a hash of things that he is elected by default. After the chaos surrounding Labour during the fuel crisis, and in the run-up to its conference in Brighton, there seemed a real prospect that this could happen. The polls initially reflected this, but the moment the public started actually to imagine the possibility of a Hague premiership they appear to have taken fright and reverted grudgingly back to supporting Labour. Yesterday's latest clutch of polls put Labour, narrowly, back in front.

On the face of it, Mr Hague is entitled to walk with a spring in his step. On the central question of Europe, the principal issue he has used to differentiate the Tories from the Government to date, he will be pleased with himself. The Danish referendum result will reinforce his own decision to oppose all things European. I hope, however, that his general satisfaction will not turn to triumphalism. Ironically, the Danes have ensured that Tony Blair will now be much more cautious on holding his own referendum to join the euro. Mr Hague's claim that the Prime Minister will use the general election to bounce Britain into an early referendum will look somewhat exaggerated.

The Tories' case has always been that there is more to the euro than Gordon Brown's five vague economic tests. They have made much of the constitutional and political implications. But the more they rely on these arguments, the more implausible will appear their decision to limit opposition to entry only for the lifetime of the next Parliament. Equally, if they succumb to Eurosceptic calls from the likes of William Cash to rule out the euro forever, they will incur they wrath of the still influential old guard led by Kenneth Clarke, Stephen Dorrell and John Gummer. Already there are signs that the conference couldbe overshadowed by familiar in-fighting over Europe, if there is too much gloating over the Danish result.

But here, I have a cunning plan for Mr Hague - who is often faced with the Labour charge that they, unlike the Tories, will eventually allow the people to decide. Mr Hague has so far declared that, if he wins the general election, there will be no referendum. The mandate of the election will, in his view, entitle him to keep out of the euro. But were he to win on this basis, there would soon be speculation again about future Tory policy for the subsequent election, with all the Europhiles within his Party constantly pressing for a change of policy.

So how about a pledge that, if elected, Mr Hague will then also hold a referendum to keep the pound? This would still allow the Europhiles, big business and others who would try to make his life difficult, to have their say. But on the basis of the Danish result, Mr Hague would be virtually certain to win a referendum anyway and would, once and for all, drive out the remaining poison within the Tory party.

Sadly for Mr Hague, however, the general election will not now, as a result of the Danish referendum, be decided solely on European matters. As in the past, it will be the battle over the balance between taxation and public expenditure which will determine the result. Here, there is a Tory credibility gap arising from their willingness to outbid Labour on so many of its spending commitments, while offering tax cuts, which Michael Portillo, the shadow Chancellor, must address this week. Already, the Tories say they will spend the same as Labour on health (and probably on education). Now we even have Mr Hague writing a blank cheque, to exceed whatever Mr Brown will spend to buy off the pensioners, without knowing by how much the Chancellor himself will increase the state pension. This really does confirm the impression of riding every passing bandwagon.

Labour is pulling a clever trick by harping on about the Tories' "£16bn" hole in their public expenditure plans, and are implying that the Tories will make cuts in current expenditure. This is a naked untruth. But still, the mud is sticking. Just as the Tories were successful, in 1992, in creating fear out of Labour's "tax bombshell", so Labour is now using the same tactics by turning the tables on the Tories' credibility on public expenditure.

Nevertheless, Labour is right to point out that the Tory figures do not yet add up, and Mr Portillo has more work to do in convincing the country that he can offer tax cuts without reducing expenditure on front-line services.

And then there is the general tone of the Tory party. Michael Ancram, Party chairman, recognises this and is talking more in terms of "mainstream" Britain. He, more than anyone at Central Office, understands the charge that the Tories are still seen as narrow, prejudiced and out of touch.

The Channel 4 profile of Mr Hague, last night, did little to soften the "skinhead Conservatism" which his physical appearance reinforces. All that was missing from the sequence showing the Tory leader wearing jeans, T-shirt and severe crew cut was a tattoo and a pit bull terrier.

But it would be churlish not to recognise that the Tory party is back in business at Bournemouth, compared to the disasters that it faced in previous conferences. Party workers are now energised and in good spirits. They, if no-one else, now "believe in Hague". With this achieved, which may ensure he keeps his job as Party leader after the election even if he loses, Hague can afford to use his address to reach out beyond the conference hall. For too long the Tories have been talking to themselves. This can now stop.

My advice is to keep the whole week reasonably low-key. Not that there is much danger of many of the frontbenchers dazzling us with great oratory, anyway. Apart from Mr Hague and Mr Ancram, only Mr Portillo and Ann Widdecombe are likely to rouse the troops. Mr Portillo has too much serious work to do to stray beyond his brief and make a subtle bid for the leadership. That leaves Miss Widdecombe, always a great cabaret act on these occasions, who needs to be told to keep the tin lid on her worst excesses.

Hopefully, the danger of the Tories being hijacked by the ghosts of leaders past will be minimised. Baroness Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath are billed to make only walk-on appearances, although John Major intends to have his say by warning against too much euro-bashing. Mr Hague will not be able to rely on a Nelson Mandela to aid his finale. Only Margaret Thatcher accompanying General Pinochet onto the stage could hope to get the Tories into a similar fervour. Thankfully, this will not happen, so it will fall to Mr Hague alone to begin the fight back.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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