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Leading Article: Hague gropes for a New Toryism

WILL THE real Will step forward, please? During the past few weeks there have seemed to be two William Hagues struggling for possession of the Tory leader. Like ferrets in a sack they have fought, and the blood is trailed across successive half-coherent speeches. Is he a liberal or a conservative, a localist or a centralist, a reactionary or a progressive, a preserver of the truth and beauty of the Ancient Constitution or a radical moderniser? At the moment he seems to be dashing from side to side of the political track faster than an Olympic bobsleigh.

Some say that at this stage in the game, with Tory recovery still far off, inconsistency does not matter. Look at Disraeli and Peel - they rose out of adversity and played two ends against the middle. (Tory historical consciousness leaps over such problem figures as Churchill and Thatcher.) Besides, they say, the Tory leader's priority ought to be opposition; he should be harrying the Government at every turn. But can credible opposition really just forget what the Tory government in power till last May actually did, let alone those principles which Toryism is supposed to embody? A gang of opportunists calling Tony Blair opportunist sound a mite unconvincing.

Yet we hear Francis Maude berating the Dome at every turn, conveniently ignoring who launched the project and oblivious to the support given it by the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine. We see William Hague waving his support for constitutional innovations - such as an elected assembly for London - with one hand while, with the other, he bats away at the reforms like an irate colonial colonel bothered by mosquitoes. We now love local councils, says William Hague, but we hate really-existing local government as practised in Hackney or Islington or Manchester.

As for Europe, we hardly need John Redwood's inability to keep the lid on his xenophobia to see that this dog has not lain down and died since Mr Hague won the leadership; it just lies there, a political Hound of the Baskervilles, occasionally snarling. The Tory party, apparently oblivious of any responsibility to think constructively about the destiny of this country, is left wallowing in the wake of Chancellor Kohl, hoping that his project for monetary union will come adrift, not realising that Tony Blair has positioned himself far better for such an eventuality.

On the few occasions since his election when William Hague has shown his own instincts he has appeared a not unattractive leader of what there will always need to be in British politics - a progressive, pro-property, anti-taxation right-of-centre party. Reviled though he was for wearing a baseball cap to the Notting Hill Carnival, that was the gesture of one who realised where our culture hummed, whose own preference is for a politics of inclusion.

But since then he seems to have allowed himself to be continually hemmed in. Take, this week, a plethora of pronouncements on Britain's electoral future. The anal-retentive tendency seems to have conquered. Just why, for example, is proportional representation such a threat, either to the Tory party or to the nation? Is the fabric of British political life so stretched, so weakened that we cannot afford a glorious experiment in choice and diversity? If PR were the threat his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies would imply, what does Mr Hague offer as an alternative means of persuading people that parliamentary politics is for them, that the system will allow them to vote successfully for representatives they can trust?

Are we any the wiser than we were about Tory ambitions for the House of Lords? William Hague, a meritocrat, seems to have been so overawed by the lineage of Robert Cranborne (Tory leader in the Lords) that he now feels compelled to support the hereditary principle as the basis for a second chamber. Forward to the next century with a gang of drooling, property-owning aristocrats - is that really the kind of thing the Saatchi brothers are going to be invited to sell on Mr Hague's behalf?

Tony Blair ought, we believe, to be a lot more radical in his thinking. But at least New Labour has begun the process of political renewal. What have the Tories to lose by joining the hunt for new forms by which the popular voice can find expression, new methods to secure people's assent to political decisions? On this week's evidence William Hague is still too much a captive of his party's stick-in-the-mud wing. His very future as party leader, let alone the future capacity of the Tories to fight the good democratic fight, depends on his breaking free.