If Hague is to be prime minister,he must return to the centre ground

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The Independent Online

William Hague was entitled to drink a bottle of champagne yesterday - albeit the cheap supermarket variety that goes flat quickly and leaves a nasty hangover. Any attempt to reach for vintage Krug would have been unwise and premature.

The Tory leader has successfully proved that in the battle to shore up his core support, in areas where Labour apathy and low turn-out are the enemy, his strategy has worked. The appeal to the base instincts of those voters who want to bash burglars, queers and asylum-seekers has resulted in good gains for the Tories in councils such as Southend. But it won't work at a general election and it is too late in the day for Mr Hague to change course.

When it comes to elections where the moderate, educated, middle-class voters turn out in substantial numbers, as they did in the formerly safe Conservative constituency of Romsey, Mr Hague's laager strategy has bombed badly.

The message is now clear. Mr Hague has already privately decided that any prospects of a Tory return to power are at least two general elections away. The opposition leader is a virtual politician. He is a virtual prime minister who rather enjoys a virtual world in which he is king already.

Mr Hague actually likes being Leader of the Opposition and, for the moment, simply wants to ensure that he continues to do the job after the next election. The past few weeks of populism and opportunism have strengthened his position inside the Tory party and ensured that he may well be able to keep his current job after the general election.

I believe that, if this is the limit of his ambition, he is right to maintain his current strategy. But if he ever has designs on being a real prime minister he needs to embrace, now, the Steven Norris experiment of inclusiveness. Mr Norris deserves the credit for reaching out to other parties' supporters, in his outstanding performance in London. He should be ennobled and parachuted into the Shadow Cabinet in a campaigning role.

In the meantime, Mr Hague's short-term strategy will be testing the shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo,to destruction. Mr Portillo probably thought the leadership would fall into his lap, afteran election defeat, next year. It won't unless that cigarette paper, which Mr Portillo once said we could not put between himself and his leader, becomes the thickness of a packet of Rizlas. It is time for Mr Portillo to recognise that he canno longer rely on Mr Hague to go quietly after next year's election defeat. He should start dusting down that speech he made about Tory inclusiveness, after his own defeat in 1997, and re-establish his new centrist credentials now.

The centre ground Mr Hague has vacated cries out for a moderate Tory voice. Mr Portillo should do, nationally, what Mr Norris did in London. Then, if he has any political courage, he should dare to challengeMr Hague next year. "He who dares, wins", Mr Portillo once famously declared. We shall see.

The author is a former Conservative MP.