Mr Hague's troops think he may win. That's a start

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The Independent Online

Surely it just had to be a sick joke. Coinciding with the start of the Conservatives' half-yearly conference in Harrogate - appropriately on April Fool's Day - William Hague had to contend with the distraction of Michael Ashcroft's elevation to the peerage. Who could credit that, yet again, on the day that the media circus would be in town, ostensibly to report on the party's presentation of a flavour of its agenda for the next election, events would be dominated by reminders of Tory sleaze?

Armies of cameramen and journalists were on an Ashcroft hunt. Tory spin doctors were beside themselves with exasperation as Mr Ashcroft played hide-and-seek before finally facing the cameras to say how delighted he was at the prospect of becoming Lord Ashcroft of Belize. Meanwhile, Tony Blair was busy stacking the Lords with yet more of his poodles and cronies while barely anyone noticed.

The events surrounding the Ashcroft affair have reinforced two important facts about the Conservative Party. First, Mr Hague has a chairman of the party, in the shape of Michael Ancram, whose abilities and stature go from strength to strength. I have never known a Tory politician to be so adept at handling crises, and the media, with such courtesy, patience and cheery optimism. It is probably because Mr Ancram has had so much experience at having to deal with bucket-loads of trouble over the past two years that there is absolutely nothing that fazes him any more.

Before last Christmas, hardly a weekend went by without some new horror threatening to engulf the Tory party. Mr Ancram never lost his cool, whether he was dealing with the fall-out from the Lord Archer saga, the dismissal of Steve Norris from the shortlist for London mayoral candidate, or the defection of Shaun Woodward to the Labour Party.

Seeing Mr Ancram in action this weekend - handling the media, jollying along the foot-soldiers in the bars - and seeing him speak to the faithful underlines a hidden asset Mr Hague must retain at all costs. Perhaps the origins of Mr Ancram's skills lie in the training in patient negotiating he had as a minister at the Northern Ireland Office.

Second, the Tory army of faithful stamp-lickers and foot-sloggers, who were present at the conference, were in a much better shape, and younger, than I had imagined they would be. They were certainly far more upbeat and optimistic about the party's prospects than most Tory MPs, who have given up on winning the next election. I have been a consumer and student of the mind-set of party members long enough to spot whether their optimism is genuine or forced. Believe it or not, they were in remarkably cheery shape.

Trying to find trouble-makers prepared to bad mouth Mr Hague - or even Mr Ashcroft - proved extremely difficult. They are even grateful to their wealthy benefactor for bank-rolling the party and are convinced that it would have ceased to have existed in any recognisable form if he had not poured his largesse into their coffers. If the price is a peerage, so be it. They also now have local figure-heads, in the form of newly selected parliamentary candidates, as a focus for party unity. Most of them had been so shocked, in 1997, at losing those Members of Parliament who had made them feel important on red carpet visits to Westminster, nominated them for MBEs, and sent them boxes of House of Commons chocolates at Christmas that they had lost the incentive to carry on with the thankless tasks of envelope stuffing. Now they once again have a purpose in life.

They also seem energised at the prospects for the forthcoming local elections. Nearly all of them face contests next month in council ward elections, which are invariably Labour held and which are easily snatched if, as seems likely, the Labour core vote stays at home. Tories may still be in a bad way where national opinion polls are concerned, but the determination of party supporters to turn out in the local elections as an act of defiance proves that Mr Hague has succeeded in shoring up his own core vote.

Gains in council seats may have little impact on general elections but they have massive and disproportionate impact on the state of party workers' morale. A local council win means a champagne victory party at the branch chairman's home. Success breeds success. A competent parliamentary candidate milks the victory for all it is worth in the local newspaper. The incumbent Labour MP starts getting nervous while his or her own supporters begin to get dispirited - especially if they are themselves defeated councillors. Nothing (and I mean nothing, not focus groups or telephone canvassing chasing Essex man, Mondeo man or Florida woman) makes up for foot soldiers walking down the leafy lanes on Middle Britain.

I detected a spring in the step of these foot soldiers at Harrogate - not least because of the significant number of younger supporters in attendance. How to explain this is difficult. Perhaps the rebelliousness of youth has decided that "Cool Britannia" and New Labour is passe in a age where passing fashion changes quickly. It was hard to square this new youthful support for Mr Hague's harsh brand of Conservatism on issues such as Section 28 and drug control. I talked to two gay students who were just about to explore the nightlife of neighbouring Leeds. They showed me their ecstasy supply as I quizzed them on Ann Widdecombe's speech earlier in support of Section 28 and drug-pushing exclusion zones outside school gates. They thought that her ideas were crackers but they would not have a word said against her. So far as they were concerned, the general Hague philosophy against the nanny state gave them the encouragement they needed to enjoy illicit teenage pleasures.

Mr Hague's own speech showed the first tentative signs that he might be looking beyond his bedrock support. True there were the usual hard- line references to Europe, asylum seekers and Section 28; but there also appeared to be a welcome attempt to address "mainstream" Britain.

"We are going to punish Labour for abandoning Middle Britain," he told a rapturous audience. His speech accepted the new political landscape so far as public expenditure on such public services as health and education were concerned. There was only a small passing reference to expanding the independent health sector, but no one noticed as he re-emphasised Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo's commitment to match Gordon Brown's spending plans. Where this leaves the wretched "tax guarantee" is still unclear. Significantly, while he repeated his policies for lower taxes, Mr Hague did not use the words "tax guarantee". Perhaps this is the next item of ideological baggage that Mr Portillo is fighting to dump.

For the first time since he became leader, I got the impression that, even if no one else believes that he can win the next election, Mr Hague's party supporters thought that he could. That at least is a start.