His party if not his country is at ease with Mr Hague

'The Portillistas may yearn, but their hero does not, at least at present, overshadow Mr Hague'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

William Hague's formulation of his own strategy stems, I'm told, from a conversation in 1997, not long after he was elected Tory leader, with Jose-Maria Aznar. It was the centre-right Prime Minister of Spain who advised him that building credibility while your party is out of government consists of three stages: first, get a grip of the party; second, be a successful opposition; third, be a plausible alternative government.

William Hague's formulation of his own strategy stems, I'm told, from a conversation in 1997, not long after he was elected Tory leader, with Jose-Maria Aznar. It was the centre-right Prime Minister of Spain who advised him that building credibility while your party is out of government consists of three stages: first, get a grip of the party; second, be a successful opposition; third, be a plausible alternative government.

On the first and least discussed of these steps, Hague has had indisputable success. This isn't, of course, to claim in defiance of evidence at hand at Bournemouth, that this is a party free of dissent. Indeed, the three biggest figures in the party still in the Commons, starting (albeit in heavy code) with John Major last night, and continuing, not least on Europe, with Ken Clarke today and Michael Heseltine tomorrow, have things to say which distinguish their brand of Conservatism from his. But there is no doubt who leads.

There were surprises in Juniper's intriguing and studiedly apolitical biopic for Channel Four on Sunday night - such as that the Opposition leader has a winningly self-assured mother and that his effective parliamentary performances against Tony Blair are such a team effort, jokes and all. No doubt one of his purposes in co-operating with it was to extinguish the notion left by his 16-year-old appearance at the party conference that he is a hinterland-free political nerd. But watching it, it was no longer impossible to imagine, at least in the Conservative Party, a modest cult of personality developing around its too easily underestimated leader.

MPs do not, these days, lightly go off message - one of several lessons Hague has unashamedly learnt from Tony Blair's period in opposition. Another was the "take it or take it" referendum on the party's interim manifesto. The absence of substantive conference debates concluding in real votes outdoes even New Labour control freakery. An MEP, Bill Newton-Dunn, has had the whip summarily removed for stepping out of line on Europe. Some other events have consolidated Hague's grip on the party in ways that were not quite apparent when they happened. To the outside world for example, it looked as if Lord Cranborne's famous secret deal with the Prime Minister to reprieve nearly 100 hereditary peers was merely an embarrassment to a leader left out of the loop, particularly since he endorsed the deal he had repudiated Cranborne for making. In the internal dynamic of the party, however, it provided Hague with a chance to sack a leading member of the Conservative establishment and so show who was boss.

The party - or at least the party present in the conference hall - is relatively at ease with his leadership. The Shadow Cabinet, from which dissidents have been surgically removed, shows every sign of bowing to his will. The Portillistas may yearn but their hero does not, at least at present, overshadow Hague is the way that it was confidently predicted he would when he was appointed. True, the Shadow Chancellor is said to have insisted on extricating the party from its unsustainable guarantee to reduce taxes parliament-by-parliament. Conversely however, Portillo's understandable resistance to committing the party to a specific cut in fuel duty, appears to have been overruled. And even the most potent contribution so far to internal debate from the left of the party, a Tory Reform Group pamphlet from the front bencher Damien Green and the pro-European MP Ian Taylor (of which more in a moment) appears to have had the licence, if not the wholehearted approval, of the leader. Certainly Mr Green is not about to be sacked for writing it with Mr Taylor, who on Europe, as on much else, is about as far removed from the leadership as is possible.

A lot of this is tactical. For nods to the middle ground have suddenly became fashionable in the Hague circle. However belatedly, the Tory leadership have started to draw the obvious conclusion from their frequent visits to North America that however identifiably of the right George W Bush had to be to win the Republican nomination, he has no chance of winning the country without appealing to the uncommitted centre. Hague's appeal beyond the Tory hard-core is deliberate. William Hague's launch of an inner-city policy yesterday - made without the crude electoralism with which Margaret Thatcher pledged to win back the inner cities after her 1987 victory - was much less remarkable for its detail than for the fact that it happened at all. In a climate in which the opinion polls have given an enticing glimpse of election victory, broadening the appeal has become a necessity.

Whether the party is yet equipped to do it with any conviction is much more doubtful. What stands out from the Green-Taylor document is, first, the real conviction that underlies its proclamation that only one-nation Conservatism will make it once again the "natural party of government", and secondly, the distance the present-day party would have to travel to embrace its sentiments. It brutally dismisses economic neo-liberalism as a creed. It includes a robust re-affirmation of the public services and the fact that they require taxation to pay for them. It even contains a remarkably revisionist passage rescuing public service employees from the alienation into which they were cast by the Thatcher years. Partly, no doubt, this is merely electoral: the pamphlet, Restoring the Balance, points out that the "new" public sector no longer consists of Labour's old hard-core support like workers in the mines, steel industry and railways and is potentially fertile ground for the Tories.

It seeks to outflank New Labour by suggesting that nurses, teachers, doctors and - most heretical of all - even social workers, need to be actively wooed by the new Conservatism.

This tract, also tinged with a definite social liberalism, may be one of the first young shoots of the Tories long-term recovery. It is hard, however, for all the brave efforts by Hague to struggle into the one nation mantle, to see it happening in time for this election day, or even, perhaps the next. That isn't to say that Labour cannot lose the election, only that the Tories cannot yet win it in its own right. This is only partly because the party's sums on tax and spending do not, at least not yet, add up.

It's also because it has not yet learned how far it has to go in recovering its one nation appeal. There are still very few senior Tories - Green is probably one of them - who you could imagine appealing as convincingly as John Major did last night to "the people in slums the people in need... the black and brown and yellow Britons who are as much as part of our society as I am."

And the fact that no one takes seriously Michael Heseltine's idea that Hague could end the craziness of Ken Clarke's absence from the Shadow Cabinet by promising to allow his team to vote according to their convictions in a euro referendum is another illustration of the same phenomenon.

For a man who was too glibly written off, Hague has achieved much. But unless he can shake off the populist dogmas that still imprison his party, he cannot fulfil the conditions of Jose-Maria Aznar's third phase of leadership.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments