Simon Carr: Welcome to William Whabblewoffle and the melancholy Michael Howard

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The Independent Online

"And most of them" – the nice lady from Cornwall was talking about those ghastly Labour supporters – "can't decide whether they need a shave or a haircut!" (Supportive laughter.)

You couldn't help reflecting that in the case of the conference star (William Hague, heard of him?), it comes to the same thing.

The former leader of the Opposition drew more applause and laughter than anyone – certainly more than the current leader. It was a delight to see him on stage with Dunkers. Double vision of that order usually requires heroic quantities of brandy.

Mr Hague made a joke that was actually funny and charmed the conference. Such a good loser. How does he do it? Practice, you say? You are unkind.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who enraged the nation as a teenage Etonian profiting from the stock market, is back. He's a comic Tory in the tradition, if not the manner, of Nicholas Soames. Striped shirt, double-breasted suit and a voice like a 1950s Pathé Pictorial newscaster. What a dishonourable, disreputable person Gordon Brown was, he told the conference. "What a dirty old rogue!"

"I don't think there's anything to be gained by being rude," a gentleman murmured behind me. The Sketch thunderously agrees. It's simply the last refuge.

The sound system in this barrel-vaulted Victorian hall is almost worse than no sound system. With the thunder of heavy Tories on the hoof, and the reverb coming back from the ceiling, the effort-to-reward ratio is very unfavourable, listening to speeches.

John Whittingdale, the trade and industry spokesman, introduced his "excellent team", and at each name turned away from the microphone: "Let me introduce William Whabblewoffle. And Robble Hegelleggle. And that doughty campaigner who needs no introduction, Dorbleorble Mujahedin."

The ears adjust eventually to the submarine acoustics, and some of the content comes through. It is true that when we read back Mr Whittingdale's case against the Government, there is both substance and merit in it: our slide of 10 places down the competitiveness league; the 6,000 pages of tax law; the extra £15 of business tax; the country's slower productivity growth, and the balance of payments deficit (I haven't lost you, have I?). But he lights no fire in the mind. He looks like the sort of boy to attract bullying. He'll be bullied by Stephen Byers.

Maybe the same will be true for Michael Howard, the new shadow Chancellor. He is a large, grave man, and carries a melancholy born of experience. But whether he has the sheer weight, the sheer, swinging, wrecking-ball ability to break through into Gordon Brown's world remains to be seen.

The problem for the Opposition (and Mr Howard referred to it obliquely) is that New Labour has been the best Tory government since the war, and attempts to denounce it have been, strictly speaking, suicidal. If Tories really want to be effective – and nothing said yesterday suggested that they do – couldn't they join the Labour party and try and change the system from within?