The Tory leader must stick to his liberal instincts

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William Hague is in danger of throwing away his best chance to strike while Tony Blair is off-balance. The crisis of confidence inflicted on the Government by the fuel-tax protest is the Conservative leader's big opportunity.

William Hague is in danger of throwing away his best chance to strike while Tony Blair is off-balance. The crisis of confidence inflicted on the Government by the fuel-tax protest is the Conservative leader's big opportunity.

So what is his opening gambit for this week's party conference? More public money for pensioners than whatever Gordon Brown comes up with. This is the politics of the playground, where the argument is won by being the first to promise a pension of "1p a week more than anybody else says" or "infinity pounds a week". How on earth can a serious political party set its tax and spending plans in relation to the as-yet-unannounced plans of another party?

This fiscal illiteracy also fixes our attention on the central weakness of the Conservative case: that it is promising simultaneously higher public spending and lower taxes. It is a contradiction that undermines Tory policy on schools, hospitals, fuel duty and a lot else besides.

What is worse, the promise to spend more than the other lot has deflected attention from the one serious and genuinely radical proposal that Mr Hague is making about long-term pension provision.

He suggested yesterday that young people should be allowed to opt out of the state pension and invest their National Insurance contributions in a private pension instead. That, contrasted with Labour's antique struggle over restoring the link between the state pension and the average earnings index, is much more the kind of free-market policy of individual responsibility that the Tories ought to adopt.

In this, Mr Hague's pensions policy fits into a wider pattern, in which the libertarian, inclusive instincts of his past have been overridden by the urge to jump on every passing bandwagon. Thus we have had a series of inauthentic Hague pronouncements on crime, the family and the rise in the number of unfounded claims for refugee status.

What the Conservative Party needs is to combine the liberal approach to economics and social policy that can be discerned in Michael Portillo and the early Hague with the One Nation ideals of Kenneth Clarke and John Major. Mr Hague's tragedy is that he seems to have been persuaded to suppress his own instincts in favour of an unattractive and unconvincing populism.

Following tales of his youthful drinking exploits, he boasted yesterday that he had "strangled one guy" in a judo bout. He should know that judo is not about aggression but about self-discipline. If he is to use Mr Blair's loss of momentum against him, he needs to fight a cleverer fight this week.

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