It is possible to be both compassionate and a Conservative, Mr Hague

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The Independent Online

So, William Hague used to down 14 pints of beer a day during his summer job delivering for a brewery. This revelation is no doubt supposed to convince us that he is not the overgrown nerdy teenager that we all thought he was, but is in fact a "regular kind of guy". The fact that he is unable to name the captain of the England football team suggests that he has a little way to go before his man-of-the-people credentials are fully credible.

So, William Hague used to down 14 pints of beer a day during his summer job delivering for a brewery. This revelation is no doubt supposed to convince us that he is not the overgrown nerdy teenager that we all thought he was, but is in fact a "regular kind of guy". The fact that he is unable to name the captain of the England football team suggests that he has a little way to go before his man-of-the-people credentials are fully credible.

The truth is that the Tories' performance in the next general election will be determined by factors rather more important than its leader's youthful experiments with cask-conditioned ale or his ability to name leading sportsmen. Image does matter, of course. And the present image of Mr Hague's party is one of exclusivity and intolerance - and not without reason.

Let us take the family. This, traditionally, has been a Conservative strength. It could be so again - but if only the party could come to terms with the way that society has changed. The Conservatives used to be supremely pragmatic about this sort of thing, a fact that went a long way to explain their long-run electoral success. They did after all, come to terms with the extension of the franchise to the working classes, the end of the British empire, and the birth of the welfare state.

But now, according to the report of the Conservative Policy Forum revealed in The Independent yesterday, the Tories seem unable to accept that a couple who live together and bring children up in a loving, stable environment, but who do not happen to have got formally married, can still qualify as a "family". Needless to say, single parents are still regarded as pariahs.

Predictably, too, it seems that party members have an "overwhelming opposition to the inclusion of overtly homosexual or lesbian couples in any of the definitions of the family". No wonder Ivan Massow quit.

It need not be so. Mr Hague and Mr Portillo have shown the potential to move their party on to more socially liberal and tolerant territory. In his wilderness phase, Mr Portillo even said, "the important thing is that people recognise the responsibility they have when they conceive children and do all they can to provide a warm, caring, balanced home for them." Mr Hague said he wanted to "reach out" to all sections of society. He even went to the Notting Hill carnival. Such gestures are rare now.

Instead we have the Conservatives dedicating themselves to the preservation of Section 28 and playing the race card over the asylum issue. We need to hear less about "bogus" asylum seekers and more of the cultural and economic contribution immigrants have made. That failure has damaged race relations, and it has made the Conservatives seem hostile to many in the ethnic communities. All the signs are that after the next election there will still be no black or Asian Tory MPs.

Mr Hague could learn from the way the American Republicans are widening their appeal by embracing "compassionate conservatism" and highlighting prominent black and Hispanic supporters. He could also revisit some of the "inclusive" themes of his 1997 leadership campaign, when he promised a "fresh start" and a Tory party at ease with itself. The Conservative Party may, in its present denuded form, be at ease with itself, but it clearly does not yet feel at ease in the nation it aspires to lead. Nor do the rest of us feel at ease with it.

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