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Leading Article: Goodbye, Mr Hague

WILLIAM HAGUE seems to think that importing the vacuous phrase "kitchen table" from the US to describe his own increasingly elusive brand of Conservatism is somehow going to help him. He is sadly mistaken. Not even his conciliatory talk in Reading yesterday of change and renewal can do much for him now.

Last week was a truly dismal one for the leader of the Opposition. Indeed it may yet turn out to be the week that extinguished Mr Hague's last hopes of ever becoming Prime Minister. Not all of it is his fault. Michael Howard's decision to step down from the Shadow Cabinet rather poignantly underlines how keenly Mr Hague must now regret not accepting Mr Howard's offer in 1997 to let him be Shadow Chancellor in return for giving Mr Howard a clear run for the leadership. But Mr Hague cannot be blamed for the fact that Michael Portillo used the flimsy pretext of Mr Howard's departure to project himself subliminally in a BBC radio interview as a leader-in-waiting. You can be sure that when Mr Portillo says that Mr Howard has an "image problem" - the identical phrase he used about Mr Hague in his famous Channel 4 television series last year - he is trying to tell his fellow Tories that he is the one aspirant who has nothing of the kind.

Nor can Mr Hague be blamed for the fact that in Gordon Brown Labour is blessed with one of the most astutely political Chancellors in living memory. Last week Mr Brown produced a populist Budget with headlines designed to influence the forthcoming mid-term elections, and a standard-rate tax reduction and generous new child credit designed to take effect in the build-up to the next general election. It was a gamble; the forecasts about lower social security spending, on which Mr Brown's - slightly exaggerated - largesse partly depends, are based on a bullishly optimistic view of global factors. But Mr Brown has gambled before and been right; it would be sensible for Mr Hague to make the working assumption that he will be right again.

Third, Mr Hague can hardly be held responsible for what may prove to be, for the British Conservative Party, the most catastrophic development of all. Mr Hague could not have predicted that the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder would so spectacularly win the power struggle against his left- wing finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. Mr Lafontaine helped to colour all the Tory Eurosceptics' worst scare stories about the single currency. His relentless pursuit of rising and harmonised taxes made the bogey of a federalist economic policy look horribly real. And his attempt to bully the European Central Bank into reducing interest rates made it all the more difficult for the Bank to do so. It is a paradox that Mr Wim Duisenberg, the head of the ECB, may be freer to stimulate Europe's rapidly deflating economy now that his chief tormentor has left the stage.

Chancellor Schroder, in other words, has shot Mr Hague's fox. In doing so he has left the central contradiction of the Conservative leader's intellectually threadbare European policy intact: either EMU entry is a constitutional outrage, and will always be; or it isn't, and setting an arbitrary interval before it can take place is pointless. Mr Hague's latest refinement, that Britain needs more to time to establish whether it is constitutionally acceptable to join EMU is simply incredible.

For Tony Blair, Mr Lafontaine's departure is an unalloyed blessing. Chancellor Schroder is something of a Blair disciple; he is entranced by the idea of the Die Neue Mitte, as he is pleased to call the Third Way. It means that the goal of EU economic reform, including more labour market flexibility, for which Tony Blair has been pressing since taking office, and which he has always sought as a quid pro quo for EMU entry, is suddenly more realisable.

So Mr Hague has been unlucky. But then it used to be said of Margaret Thatcher that she made her own luck - something that Mr Hague seems incapable of doing. Oppositions matter. They expose bad governments and make good ones better. This, we believe, is rather a good government. But it is far from perfect. It has a tendency to arrogance and authoritarianism which can only increase in the absence of an opposition which can be taken seriously. If Mr Hague cannot provide that, the Conservative Party should find someone who can.