Mr Hague is the best leader the Conservatives have

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The present plight of the Conservative Party is easy to describe but difficult to solve. The apparent fading of William Hague's revival in the opinion polls has prompted summer-holiday mutterings about his leadership. The temptations of a short, sharp coup to replace a party leader with a more electorally zingy model often turn the heads of those mysterious beings "party strategists" in the nine months before the likely date of a general election. But they are rarely acted upon. The most famous recent example was Bob Hawke's replacement of a now-forgotten leader of the Australian Labor Party at the start of the 1983 general election - which Mr Hawke went on to win, in the first of three successive victories.

The present plight of the Conservative Party is easy to describe but difficult to solve. The apparent fading of William Hague's revival in the opinion polls has prompted summer-holiday mutterings about his leadership. The temptations of a short, sharp coup to replace a party leader with a more electorally zingy model often turn the heads of those mysterious beings "party strategists" in the nine months before the likely date of a general election. But they are rarely acted upon. The most famous recent example was Bob Hawke's replacement of a now-forgotten leader of the Australian Labor Party at the start of the 1983 general election - which Mr Hawke went on to win, in the first of three successive victories.

That option is not available to the Tories today. The alternative candidates for the leadership would not improve the party's chances at the next election. Michael Portillo and Ann Widdecombe, on the right of the party, seem to produce an allergic reaction among unaffiliated voters, while Kenneth Clarke, who would certainly give Tony Blair a run for his money on the political centre ground, would split the Tory party from top to bottom on the issue of Europe.

Mr Hague is, therefore, the best leader the Conservatives could have, even if, on present trends, he seems unlikely to deny Mr Blair a second term.

The weather is fine, the economy is ticking along and Mr Blair - with whom the voters seemed to be suffering a case of familiarity breeding irritation - has gone on holiday. Mr Hague must be desperate for the Prime Minister to get back from holiday as soon as possible and start messing things up again.

The restoration of Labour's opinion-poll lead to the level enjoyed at the start of this year should, however, be a warning to the opposition leader. His attempts to scrape up votes by starting distasteful scares over crime and immigration may have caught Mr Blair off balance, but the boost they gave to the Tories' opinion-poll ratings seems to have melted like hailstones in August.

The lesson of the temporary inflation of Tory hopes is that they are not going to get back in contention by appealing to the intolerant and reactionary instincts of our natures. If the Conservatives want to maximise their chances at the next election and beyond, they will have to take the fight to New Labour on the centre ground. And Mr Hague is the leader who must do it.

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