His opponents underestimate William Hague at their peril

Anthony Bevins on a secret success story
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The Independent Online
The Conservatives are as divided about William Hague as they are on so much else. But there is a growing group of party people who are impressed by their new, young leader.

Chris Patten was not joking when he told a Tory dinner party on April Fool's Day that Mr Hague had been sensibly leading the party from its traditional centre, with skill and determination. "He possesses formidable ability and an engaging unflappability," the former party chairman and ex-governor of Hong Kong said. "He has made an excellent start and deserves the loyal and enduring support so fatally denied his predecessor."

That could be too much to ask for. From the very outset, as soon as he was elected leader last year, there were people out to "get" Mr Hague. They conspire regularly, bide their time, and wait for their moment. Given the opportunity, which they could yet create, they would undoubtedly try to bring him down.

But Mr Hague is no fool, and for those who have not had the opportunity to watch him at work, it needs saying that he is indeed a skillful and capable political operator in his own right. He should not be underestimated.

For the moment, however, no one seems to be watching Mr Hague. Apart from occasional forays on to shows like Parkinson and Woman's Hour, his media exposure is minimal, because he is so completely eclipsed by the phenomenal news coverage given to the Sun-god, Blair.

The handicaps Mr Hague has yet to overcome include the fact that a majority of voters believe, wrongly, that he went to private school - as Mr Blair did - and, defying the evidence of their own ears, two in five voters believe he is a southerner in spite of his distinctive Yorkshire accent.

In fact, he is down-to-earth, personable, and has a sharp line in wit that often leaves Labour Ministers grinning sheepishly during Prime Minister's Questions.

He described the fudged entry terms for economic and monetary union as "more ostrich than emu"; of Mr Blair's speech to the French National Assembly, he said in a party speech: "What's the point in speaking French, if you can't answer a question in English?", and he observed that Paddy Ashdown had invented a new version of the children's game of rubbing the stomach and patting the head at the same time - "a new variant in which you try to narrow your eyes while completely missing the point."

Nevertheless, according to the latest Daily Telegraph Gallup results, only four in 10 voters think Mr Hague is proving a good Conservative leader.

The broader-based February Gallup Index found that more Conservative supporters believed that either Mr Blair or Mr Ashdown would make a better Prime Minister than the 39 per cent of Tories, who backed Mr Hague for the job. That takes some doing, and if it persisted, it would certainly be used as ammunition by those who would like to see him ousted.

Analysing the figures, Anthony King, Professor of Government at Essex University, said: "Not since the time of Michael Foot, who led Labour in the early 1980s, has any leader of either major party been held in such slight regard."

There was a time when, mesmerised by figures, the pundits said it would be impossible for Labour to get a swing big enough to win a working majority at the last election - before last May's landslide. Equally, there was a time when wiseacres said the Tories would never dump a serving Prime Minister as their leader - before they dumped Margaret Thatcher in the 1990 coup.

Nothing is impossible in politics, and while it is certainly possible for the party to get rid of him in the event of another defeat at the next election, there is time yet for Mr Hague to make his way, name and mark.

Even if Mr Blair manages to win another working majority at the next election, that still gives Mr Hague the chance of becoming Prime Minister at the tender age of 46, in the year 2007. The leader of the Opposition - who naturally hopes to win next time - is playing a patient, long game; he is applying to the party leadership some of the techniques he learned as a high-flying management consultant with McKinsey.

The most common word used to describe him is business-like. He takes advice and views from a broad range of people, decides what he wants, stands for no nonsense, and acts fast.

His game plan has been straightforward, but bold. He has started with a revolutionary overhaul of the party machine: in order to provide a national membership database; one-member, one-vote leadership elections; and a 14-strong executive board in place of a ramshackle 200-member Conservative National Union executive.

As for policy, Mr Hague rightly believes there is no need for haste. Instead, he is slowly but surely setting down the parameters of a policy framework that is as acceptable to the left of his party as it is to the mainstream right.

When Mr Patten said this month that Mr Hague had no intention of following the fruit-cake US Republican route into the political wilderness - "anti- abortion here, capital punishment there, with a few zany tax ideas thrown in" - he was well-briefed.

Mr Hague talks of local institutions, community, the family, nation, and One Nation: the idea that inspires traditional Tory moderates. If he can keep those moderates sweet with his social thinking, while keeping the Tory right on board with his wait-and-see-but-not-yet stance on the European single currency, then he will have done well; very well.

In a speech to party activists at the end of last month, he said: "If we are to win, we will have to make it clear that our One Nation Conservatism is not just an economic doctrine." In essence, he is reversing the Clinton doctrine, and saying: "It's not just the economy, stupid." Mr Hague believes that his party got too bound up with the economy, creating a gap that Mr Blair has filled with his election-winning agenda for hospitals, schools, law and order.

Some senior Conservatives argue that if Mr Hague can keep the party united, stable, sensible and calm, he could just deliver victory at the next election - particularly if there is a big economic slump.

But as Mr Blair was quick to recognise, there is no law of gravity guaranteeing a Commons majority to those who sit and wait patiently under apple trees; politics is much more pro-active. Mr Hague has grasped that point, and has made more changes in the Conservative Party in the last eight months than Labour made in 18 years. He has made a good start, but Mr Blair is not standing still. Mr Hague has a good way to go yet, and tides wait for no man.