The Conservative Party looks less ready to govern than it did a week ago

While his speech in Bournemouth yesterday was delivered with less than his usual panache, William Hague remains the most natural platform speaker to lead his party for more than a generation. His attack on the Dome, as a symbol of New Labour's emptier pretensions, was perfectly judged. His relentless populism is not pretty, but it has raised his party's profile. And if his tiresome lunges at metropolitan élites and political correctness border on the obsessive, his projection of himself as a blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, in contrast to the public school-educated Prime Minister, has a resonance. Moreover he has been genuinely bold in developing the outlines of new policy thinking which tackles Labour on its own territory of health, education and inner cities.

While his speech in Bournemouth yesterday was delivered with less than his usual panache, William Hague remains the most natural platform speaker to lead his party for more than a generation. His attack on the Dome, as a symbol of New Labour's emptier pretensions, was perfectly judged. His relentless populism is not pretty, but it has raised his party's profile. And if his tiresome lunges at metropolitan élites and political correctness border on the obsessive, his projection of himself as a blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, in contrast to the public school-educated Prime Minister, has a resonance. Moreover he has been genuinely bold in developing the outlines of new policy thinking which tackles Labour on its own territory of health, education and inner cities.

There were, however, several difficulties which Mr Hague's speech failed to resolve. First, his valiant attempt to square the traditional Conservative adherence to law, order and family values with his shadow Chancellor's welcome appeal for "social tolerance" on Tuesday cannot disguise a real fault-line in the post-Thatcherite right wing that now dominates the party. The Tory division is no longer Europe, but one of philosophy.

The tensions have been bubbling beneath the surface for many months. This week, unfortunately for Mr Hague, they burst into the open. It is not his fault that Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo appear to be as interested in positioning themselves for some future leadership contest as in using the conference as a launching-pad for the next general election. But they represent two conflicting strands in party thought that are much less compatible than Mr Hague appears to think.

To take one single example made topical by Mr Portillo: a party which so rapturously applauds Mr Hague's attack on those who would repeal Section 28 yesterday cannot project itself as one which appeals as strongly to gay people as Labour. Overall, Mr Hague's instincts lie with Mr Portillo but he is severely hampered by the fact that those of the wider party are closer to Miss Widdecombe's.

Second, the week has demonstrated that the Shadow Cabinet is one of the most undistinguished in the post-war period. In cricketing terms, there is too long a tail. On the key areas of education and health, Theresa May and, to a lesser extent, Liam Fox have disappointed. Moreover, some of the more charismatic in party eyes, like Ann Widdecombe, are also the most troublesome in broadening the Tories' appeal to the country. There is real talent - David Willetts, one of the few shadow ministers to produce some actual numbers on savings, shows more signs than most of connecting to the outside world. But the front bench needs to be refreshed with urgency.

Third, neither Mr Hague yesterday, nor Mr Portillo on Tuesday, help their attempts to project the party as a government-in- waiting when they fail to explain how they will reconcile their spending plans with a determination to cut tax. Labour's claim that a Tory government would have to identify £16bn of cuts is artificial. But the Tories have allowed this figure to become the accepted wisdom. Mr Hague will have to give some more concrete examples of big savings than his vague "billions of pounds" on fraud and waste, if he is going to convince the electorate of the doubtful proposition that "we can have lower taxes and better public services".

Mr Hague should restrain his attempts to revive the idea that Conservatism and patriotism are identical. His credibility is not improved by suggesting that a prime minister whom Margaret Thatcher was happy to identify as a protector of British interests before the last election is trying to destroy his country. Such hyperbole may well prove counter-productive outside the ranks of the Tories' hard-core supporters. The Conservative Party has been resuscitated by Mr Hague. It is breathing again. But it looks less ready to return to office than it did a week ago.

Comments