Hague is clinging on but his bough is about to snap

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Over the next fortnight, the Conservative party is posting a consultation document to all its members. This 32-page "pre-manifesto" pamphlet will - if fully endorsed - become the basis for the Tory election manifesto next year. Given the average age of party members, many will be disappointed that the post brings only a package from Central Office rather than a telegram from the Queen, but having read the document most will, of course, endorse it.

Over the next fortnight, the Conservative party is posting a consultation document to all its members. This 32-page "pre-manifesto" pamphlet will - if fully endorsed - become the basis for the Tory election manifesto next year. Given the average age of party members, many will be disappointed that the post brings only a package from Central Office rather than a telegram from the Queen, but having read the document most will, of course, endorse it.

Bursting with proposals for encouraging private health care and education, reducing the size of government, and cutting taxes, the pamphlet is guaranteed to strike a chord with paid-up Tories. But the problem is that the party is failing to attract anyone else.

Nobody expects the October conference to hold many fears for William Hague. The Tories are notoriously loyal to their leaders, and with good reason. Up to now, the reward for that loyalty has been power. Not a single Tory head has failed them in this regard: every Conservative leader for a century and more has become prime minister. It's an amazing record, unrivalled by any Western democratic party. But this must only add to Hague's woes: what if he is the first Tory leader to fail to win the prize, a footnote in history rather than a chapter?

Only a few weeks ago, the Conservatives had a bit of a spring in their step. Labour was enduring a rough patch. Hague was regularly biffing Tony Blair at Question Time. The Women's Institute speech, the Gould memos, Euan's arrest - all seemed to be going wrong for the Prime Minister. And the polls confirmed it. One survey gave the Government only a three-point lead. And that Tory journal, the Spectator, began to list political journalists who had previously written off Hague's chances but who were now recanting, recognising his outstanding abilities as a future PM.

No longer. The polls have steadied, the gap widened again. In the latest survey, Conservative support has dropped below 30 per cent. Now the received wisdom is of a Labour majority of at least 100 - perhaps even a bigger one than last time. There's even talk of a snap autumn election. Everything's gone pear-shaped for the Tories.

Does Hague read the writing on the wall? The messages are mixed. On the one hand we get attractive but unworkable "gonna lose anyway so let's go down gloriously" policies, like the tax guarantee or the promises to renegotiate European treaties. On the other, we have some sensible, cautious statements, such as the ditching of that tax guarantee, or the refusal to back the News of the World's proposed Sarah's law.

I suspect that, despite the polls, Hague still thinks he's in with a decent shot. Politicians tend to suffer from this myopia of self-belief. Remember how poor Douglas Hurd made such a fool of himself in the 1990 Tory leadership contest - trying to shake off that patrician, old Etonian image - because he thought that the premiership was almost in his grasp. Now Hague, with his boasts of 14 pints of beer, is suffering the same fate: going down without dignity.

What must ensure sleepless nights chez Hague is the fear of becoming an ex-party leader while still in his prime. He turns only 40 next March; he could spent the entire second half of his life as "the former leader of the opposition". That is hardly likely to endear him to the party. Hell hath no fury like a Tory disappointed. Conservatives despise their former leaders at the best of times; see how the party conferences now shun John Major and Ted Heath as embarrassments. The only former leaders given any respect are Churchill and Thatcher, both of whom retired in office. No one else in the Tory pantheon of pin-ups - Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell - ever led the party.

Labour has a rather different attitude to its former leaders. For a party in which barely a third of its leaders have made it to number 10, even those who never climbed beyond leader of the opposition - Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith - are treated as great PMs-who-never-were by their party allies.

So Hague's ambition must be to fight another election in, say, 2005. But his chances are looking slim. The last Tory loser to get a second crack was Heath, who had been roundly thrashed in 1966, but was allowed to stay on for the 1970 victory. Unfortunately for Hague, comparisons between the two are misleading. In March 1966, Heath had led the Tories only for eight months - defeat could easily be blamed on an inherited shadow cabinet and policies. Hague does not have that excuse; multiple reshuffles and triumphant policy launches have ensured this is Hague's party, not Major's.

The hope for Hague must be that he stays by default - that the lack of a credible successor will ensure it even after defeat. Such a strategy depends on two tactics. First, the most plausible candidate (Michael Portillo) must be inextricably linked to Hague's policies - he'll share the blame when it all goes wrong. Second, Hague must marginalise other candidates (Ken Clarke) so they are "has-beens" in any subsequent challenge. However, such a plan has already backfired: after Hague tried to cast his rival, John Redwood, into the outer darkness by sacking him, Redwood continued to act as if he were still a shadow cabinet member, putting out daily press releases and grabbing all the news headlines, ultimately forcing Hague to bring him back.

What may keep Hague in the post, for a while at least, will be the imminent prospect of the referendum on the euro. If the general election is in May, the referendum could come within months, and Hague will surely be given a second chance then. It's pretty likely, however, that he'll lose that, too.

The most plausible scenario must be that, if Hague gets an electoral drubbing as severe as the polls predict, and then loses the vote on the single currency too, he'll be out. Despite his efforts, if a vacancy is seen to arise, a challenger will surely emerge. Neither Thatcher, Major nor Hague were considered leadership material until the day after they had grabbed the great prize.

What then for the former opposition leader? A few years on the backbenches offering "friendly advice" to his successor, and then it'll be off to the job centre. Memoirs, chat shows and the lecture circuit will keep him busy for a while, but not long. Having spent so long rubbishing everything European, he can hardly expect to "do a Kinnock" and sail into a cushy Commission posting. I suppose he could go back to his old job at McKinsey's, but who wants management consultancy from such a public loser?

"All political careers end in failure," claimed Powell. True, but the failure comes earlier for some than for others. Hague is a likeable and talented man for whom failure will surely arrive prematurely. If his skills are not to be wasted for decades in the House of Lords, he'd better start thinking of an alternative career, and soon.

* Alan Watkins is on holiday.

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