Mr Hague is at Base Camp but there's a long climb yet

'He still has to enthuse his troops with the prospect of a victory which he knows to be unlikely'

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It was a jaunty William Hague who hosted the Shadow Cabinet last week's end-of-term press reception, in the St Stephen's Club, across the road from Parliament. Looking relaxed and walking tall (this judo training really has done something to increase his height), I was struck by the new deference being shown to him among Westminster's normally cynical rat pack.

It was a jaunty William Hague who hosted the Shadow Cabinet last week's end-of-term press reception, in the St Stephen's Club, across the road from Parliament. Looking relaxed and walking tall (this judo training really has done something to increase his height), I was struck by the new deference being shown to him among Westminster's normally cynical rat pack.

Mr Hague's difficulty, hitherto, has been to command even a hearing from the press and the public. But he can be well pleased with the fruit now being borne by his choice of Amanda Platell as his press ambassador. The division bell rang during the proceedings but Mr Hague ordered his chief whip to keep the Shadow Cabinet chatting to the hacks. Only the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, was brave enough to scuttle out, after only one drink, managing just two words as he brushed past me in his anxious bid to escape any dangerous talk with journalists.

A year ago, when the summer recess began, Mr Hague was still a figure of ridicule as leaked memos from Ms Platell's computer - seeking to cast Mr Hague as a Sylvester Stallone look-alike with a Bruce Willis haircut - filled the silly season pages. As it has turned out, the image Ms Platell was trying to portray for her hero has now been successfully established in the perception of the media and the public. The Leader of the Opposition really does now look and behave the part of the lean keen killing machine - as Tony Blair and most MPs will surely testify after a string of parliamentary exchanges over several months in which Mr Hague has emerged the winner.

Gone is the baseball cap, so reminiscent of Michael Foot's duffle coat. Mr Foot never looked like a Leader of the Opposition, but Mr Hague has now established himself in the role. Gone also is the talk of leadership succession by Tory MPs, behind cupped hands. They now acknowledge the growing likelihood that Mr Hague will continue to lead their party after the election - win or lose.

As I door-stepped Mr Hague outside the Commons committee corridor prior to his pre-recess address to the parliamentary troops, he could barely contain his glee as I confessed that I, and others, had under-estimated his sheer tenacity when under fire. Joking that I was not allowed inside anymore, he gave a hint of the fighting speech he was about to make in Room 14.

Sitting outside, I had no need to pin my ear to the keyhole. His voice is so loud and so penetrating that I could clearly hear him bellow, "we do not just intend to wound. We now intend to kill," followed by: "Our task is not just to be a good opposition but to be seen as the alternative government."

What is more, the predicted de-stabilising effect on his leadership of Michael Portillo's return to front-line politics has not materialised. The rapid appointment of Mr Portillo as Shadow Chancellor has been the single most important decision taken by Mr Hague since becoming leader. Mr Portillo's strategic understanding of what was wrong with "The Common Sense Revolution" led to the ditching of the "Tax Guarantee". The pulping of the remaining copies of this flagship document suggests that the Tories have rightly gone back to the policy-making drawing board with a blank sheet of paper.

But Mr Portillo appears to have found it hard to readjust to a political life without armies of civil servants and sycophantic MPs who once saw him as the king across the water. It was a crafty move to pitch him against Gordon Brown. While Mr Brown spent last week glad-handing backbench troops on the Commons Terrace and in the bars, Mr Portillo kept a low profile. Hopefully, Mr Portillo will avoid the fate Mr Brown dealt to his two predecessors, Peter Lilley and Francis Maude, but I was shocked to hear a previously loyal Portillista describe his former hero as "a busted flush".

Such a judgement is premature. In fairness to Mr Portillo, he has had to get used to the new political landscape inside the Commons. His colleagues, who held their seats in 1997, have had three years in which to adjust. Do not rule out, either, as Mr Portillo dumps his previous image and friends, a serious prospect of him emerging as the inheritor of the middle ground vacated by the retirement of the old guard - Michael Heseltine. Not for nothing does Richard Ottoway, the junior Treasury spokesman on Mr Portillo's shadow team who once ran Mr Heseltine's leadership campaign, speak highly of his new boss. The grandee, Nicholas Soames, another inheritor of the Tory "One Nation" tradition, is also an influential fan.

Meanwhile, Mr Portillo's and Mr Hague's fortunes are bound together as the clock ticks to the next election. Most worrying for them is that, after weeks of a successful guerrilla campaign against Labour on what Mr Blair would dismiss as "froth" issues, the latest Mori poll for The Times gives Labour a 16 per cent lead - precisely the same as a year ago. As Labour has now effectively published its manifesto, with the results of the comprehensive spending review pointing the way on health, transport and education, the voters are still asking "What do the Tories stand for?"

The good news for Mr Hague is that the same poll indicates that the Tories are perceived to have the best policies on law and order, taxation and on pensions - proving that the guerrilla campaign has yielded some public attention. Mr Portillo would argue that he has also made inroads on Mr Brown by increasing the number of people who believe the Tories are better at managing the economy from 24 to 32 per cent. But there is still a lack of a coherent policy as a whole, which needs addressing while shadow ministers sun themselves in France and Italy.

The Shadow Cabinet met a fortnight ago in secret conclave for a brainstorming session and nothing seems to have leaked in the form of any conclusions. It is to be hoped that this gathering was preparing the ground for a draft manifesto, which is supposed to be put to party members in time for the party conference at Bournemouth.

Labour is far advanced on policy compared to the Tories. Between now and October there will be a regular drip feed of updated policies (resulting from the recent policy forum held at Exeter) which will be ready for endorsement at their party conference. For all Millbank's alleged control freakery some 40,000 Labour party members have had some input into the policy making. Mr Hague's party members will only be given their policy diet on a top-down basis. Time is running out if a co-ordinated programme is to be endorsed in time for the party conference.

Mr Hague knows that he still has to enthuse his troops with the prospect of a victory which he knows to be unlikely. At the same time, he has to prepare to portray a defeat as a personal victory enabling him to see off Mr Portillo after the election. But it would be churlish to deny that Mr Hague has now got to Base Camp. He has moved from being the Michael Foot of the Tory Party to the equivalent of Neil Kinnock (Mk I). Now, two years late, the mountain climb must begin.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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