Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hague?

'He said that the Tories were a government in waiting. But they don't even believe it themselves'

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It's going to be a great speech, William Hague's to the Conservative Party conference next week. That voice, like the lifting of floorboards in an old Northern house, will creak and crack and squeak with a mighty contempt for the Government and its works, its Domes, its panics and its failures. How out of touch Tony Blair is! All that sweat for so little result! Or was that sprayed on by a spin doctor? The attack bit of the address will be terrific.

It's going to be a great speech, William Hague's to the Conservative Party conference next week. That voice, like the lifting of floorboards in an old Northern house, will creak and crack and squeak with a mighty contempt for the Government and its works, its Domes, its panics and its failures. How out of touch Tony Blair is! All that sweat for so little result! Or was that sprayed on by a spin doctor? The attack bit of the address will be terrific.

But how about the other part: the part that says, "entrust the country to us and this is what we're going to do"? Can the young leader tell us with what great purpose destiny might present Britain with a Hague government?

Three weeks ago, with Labour's poll lead widening again after the summer, the question would have seemed faintly ludicrous - pedantic almost - a bit like carefully costing the Liberal Democrats' manifesto, a parlour game for nerds. Now, with the most recent surveys giving the Tories a lead, the forensic beams of a thousand media lasers will be cutting into the detail of what William, Michael, Ann and, er, the others, are promising to do for us and to us.

The event that changed the political landscape of Britain was, of course, the fuel protest. On 31 August - 10 days or so before the queues hit the pumps here - Conservative Central Office sent out a press release detailing Mr Hague's reaction to the blockades in France. William was cross. "He is calling", said the release, "on Mr Jospin to take action in French courts to impose immediate fines on an hourly basis against individuals involved in the blockading, and to provide compensation to British haulage companies, ports and holidaymakers for the loss of revenue and inconvenience caused."

Within a fortnight he was describing those who had done the same thing in Britain as "fine, upstanding citizens". If any foreign tourist were to be compensated for the results, Mr Hague was keeping very quiet about it.

This was not an inconsistency - it was a contradiction. It is the kind of thing that some newspapers can get away with, because very few tabloid readers (and by no means all broadsheet ones) notice if we say one thing one day and the exact opposite the next. But it's much trickier for parties that lay claim to running the country.

By the time it became clear that there was widespread public sympathy for the blockades (as there also was in France), the Conservative leader discerned nothing less than a "tax revolt", with which he was entirely in sympathy. It was not a tax grumble nor a tax whinge nor even a tax protest, but a tax revolt, the product of a great and justified anger. The unmistakable implication was that Mr Hague also considered taxes to be far too high and was in favour of their substantial reduction. How else could you accommodate a justified revolt?

Unfortunately for Mr Hague, the revolt came only a few weeks after his party's acknowledgement of the final demise of the tax-cut guarantee, which had been slowly expiring ever since Michael Portillo became shadow Chancellor. Mr Portillo's anxiety about the guarantee had a real electoral basis to it: however seductive tax cuts might have sounded to the public, the prospect of large spending cuts would have seemed too high a price to pay.

Has the fuel crisis altered that equation? During the summer, before Britain came to a standstill, the Conservatives issued a large number of press releases and initiatives, including "Believing In Britain", their pre-manifesto manifesto. Between them, these various statements implied extra money for pensioners, both directly (a solid and reliable increase in the basic state pension) and through dropping the tax on pension funds.

On the NHS, Mr Hague committed himself to "match in full Labour's health spending plans". Nothing on education suggested a cut, but it was pretty clearly implied that there would be more money for policing, prisons, the armed services and - of course - farmers. Pig-farmers, hill-farmers, whatever category of farmer was under discussion at that moment, should get more dosh.

Meanwhile, in those pre-revolt days, there were still to be tax cuts. Business was being overtaxed to the tune of £5bn. Fuel tax was far too high, and the ordinary citizen was paying too much in personal taxation. Presumably the Conservatives could now add substantially to this list; otherwise how could they meet the terms of the revolt?

But (and here it becomes impossible) none of this can imply more government spending, because - as Michael Portillo pointed out as the summer began - Mr Brown's "spending splurge" already threatens the country with a return to higher inflation and interest rates. So something has to give. But what?

I can identify only three areas. The Tories will cut welfare fraud, which stands - according to the Public Accounts Committee - at £4bn. They will cut the social fund, which provides grants to the poorest claimants for items such as fridges and sofas. And they will cut the New Deal - though they are promising to replace it with the uncosted "Britain Works" programme.

Not only does this not add up, but it is almost insultingly self-contradictory. Nor can the fabulous Portillo get them off the hook with a formulation right out of the bad old days of Labour in opposition. "A Council of Economic Advisers", he says, "will publicly advise the Chancellor on the balance between spending and taxes which will represent a prudent approach to the national finances and so help to secure low inflation and low interest rates." The National Economic Assessment redux! And this from the party that opposed independence for the Bank of England!

Under any kind of scrutiny similar to that which Labour faced before the 1992 and 1997 elections, this cardboard folly will fall apart. The only way out would be for the Conservatives to tone down the anti-tax rhetoric and mostly accept the spending and taxation levels that the Government has already planned for. Within those totals they could move things about - but not too much.

But if they do so trim, then what would they be for? What is Hagueism? The danger is that the main way for the Tories to differentiate themselves from Labour and the Lib Dems (other than over Europe) would be by an even more horrid embracing of social authoritarianism. We already have them supporting the retention of Clause 28 (and if Hague and Portillo genuinely agree with the homophobic baronesses, then my name's Lord Alfred Douglas), shouting about travellers, asylum-seekers, foreign doctors, over-explicit sex education and French lorry-drivers. Where else could they play Haider-seek?

'Snot serious. Mr Hague said this week that the Tories were a government in waiting. But they don't believe it themselves. There are - surprisingly - worse things than losing. Far worse is winning when you haven't the slightest notion what to do.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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