Leading article: Mr Hague spins the globe

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The Independent Online

A well-constructed speech, delivered with panache, is always welcome at a party conference, and by those standards one of the most reliable performers is William Hague. Now shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Hague met his audience-appreciation quota with ease yesterday, but he failed to dispel doubts about the direction in which the Conservative Party's foreign policy is heading.

The shift to the centre ground, so deliberate in other policy areas, has generally been less evident here - save in one respect: relations with the United States. Yesterday, Mr Hague took up David Cameron's recent pledge that a Conservative government would set greater distance between itself and the US than Tony Blair has done with George Bush.

Repeating Mr Cameron's precise formulation - an alliance that should be "solid, but never slavish" - Mr Hague went a little further than Mr Cameron had done in his implied criticism of the Blair-Bush relationship. Alluding to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, he spoke of the need to show "respect for the rights of others" and "never besmirch" our values "by the abuse of prisoners or the abandonment of our own rule of law".

Mr Hague continued Mr Cameron's efforts to distance the party from its support for the Iraq war by condemning not the principle of the war, but the US's lack of preparation for the aftermath. And he signalled no change to the revised position on Europe. The plan is still for the party to break away from the European People's Party in the European Parliament, but not before 2009. It is early days in the new Conservatives' policymaking, as Mr Cameron constantly reminds us. But foreign policy - with Iraq, Afghanistan, relations with the US and Europe all in play - is one area in which the Conservatives could already mount a credible opposition. Yet there is much in the positions presented by Mr Hague yesterday that simply does not add up.

The move away from the US smacks of a quest for short-term domestic advantage, rather than long-term policymaking. A loosening of ties without any rapprochement with Europe looks like a recipe for isolation, however warmly Mr Hague spoke of the Commonwealth as an underused resource.

And what of Mr Hague's promise that a Conservative government, like the present Labour government, would commit itself to requiring a parliamentary vote before sending British troops into combat? As we saw before the Iraq war, a vote is only as useful as the debate that precedes it. The Conservatives failed then to ask the searching questions that were the duty of a responsible Opposition. It is not yet clear that they are asking the right questions now.