William Hague's speech yesterday was pretty potboiling stuff, addressed to the tribe rather than the country. Besides, the leader's speech was overshadowed by Michael Portillo's demarche on the conference fringe. He is too resourceful and ambitious a politician to have stayed away for long but the manner of his return was dramatic. Personal humiliation of the kind he suffered in the early hours of May 2nd is clearly good for the soul. He took centre stage with an extraordinary volte-face. The queen (Maggie and all her works) is dead. Long live the (liberal, tolerant, compassionate) king. Why, next he may be heard offering a prayer for Jacques Santer.
Though Norman Tebbit rarely shows much Christian charity, he would presumably allow that his prized (mono-) cultural inheritance includes the New Testament. One of its most teasing stories, to non-believers and believers alike, is that of the prodigal son. This week the Conservatives came back to the fold, and repented. There they had been for all those years, boozing with ideologues, stripping down to their economically liberal underwear. They were indeed crazy years. During them Lady Thatcher and John Major attempted to defend a Toryism that had become an unstable permissive in matters of business but morally censorious of choice in matters of sex, child-rearing and household formation. It was not the creed of modern Britons around them.
This week reality dawned - or at least a glimmering of consistency. No one quite had the courage to point out that liberalising changes in attitude and social practice occurred while Mrs Thatcher was on watch, that she is "responsible" (in so far as politicians have anything to do with social change). But at least the Tories now recognise what Michael Portillo coyly called the "new norms" are here to stay. Gays will not go back into the closet. Women will not be driven out of jobs nor will they relinquish their freedom to choose whether and with whom they have children. William Hague came near to accepting that freedom is indivisible. If you value the freedom of consumers, of patients and parents, you must also prize - however much you might regret the consequences - their freedom to divorce or set up with a same-sex partner.
All this amounts to heroic redirection. Historically Conservatism prospered by resisting change, in postulating ideal types of behaviour. Often it was hypocrisy on stilts. Aristocrat Tories condemned in the working class behaviour they applauded in their drawing rooms. Tory MPs were often the last people to observe the precepts they tried to legislate for others. Lately, the Tories have made themselves into the party of an anachronistic definition of the family. This has meant they became social whingers, constantly complaining that people kept making choices they don't like. (These people of course included ministers, their ex-mistresses and prime minister's children, which made the Tory message all the more unintelligible.) William Hague himself still feels the need to bow his knee to the approved form of matrimony but, intellectually and politically, he sees how his party had driven up a cul-de-sac. It is now on its way back down. And he (we assume) enjoyed some sex before marriage in Blackpool this week.
But this will be a slow and difficult political conversion. Listening to Mr Hague's speech was to hear the grating sound of a man trying to play two ends against the middle. This was a leader prepared only up to a point to beckon his people back to the middle ground - he certainly made free with the tribe's totems and tokens. So we had compassion and tolerance - code for welcoming gays - but also a paean of praise to the "traditional family". Mr Hague wants more Tory women MPs, but would not forego a gratuitous assault on a Labour minister, Harriet Harman, based largely on her gender. Mr Hague lauds free trade but within a few sentences aligns himself with hard-line nationalism, the kind that wants protection. Mr Hague, in other words, has not yet entirely abandoned the shibboleths he needs to shed.
And yet the Conservatives deserve half a round of applause - by which we mean not the sound of one hand clapping, but two hands clapping, slowly. They really did advance this week. What next? Imagine a line-up at Brighton in 1998 of young men who had doffed their pinstripes and, some of them, come out; of sassy go-ahead career women ... That would start to look like a Tory party capable of giving New Labour a run for its money. We'd like to see it happen.