The Hague Way: dull and weird at the same time

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The Independent Online
favourite game among Tory backbenchers during this long summer break has been to speculate whether William Hague is their party's Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock or - for the real optimists - Tony Blair. Well, thanks to those poll leaks, we now know the answer: he is, after all, the Conservatives' very own Magnus Pyke. When voters hear "William", they think "weird".

So consistently were the focus groups giving the answer "William Hague" to the question "What should the party change to improve its ratings?" that radical action was called for from Conservative Central Office. So they changed the question.

Weirdness never used to be a problem within the Tory hierarchy. Indeed, the time was when it seemed a positive advantage. From Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher, ordinariness was never a crucial qualification for the party leadership. In fact, aloofness (Macmillan), an odd accent (Heath) or a ferocious hairdo (Thatcher) have usually been preferred to more human features (Butler, Maudling, Macleod).

It was always Labour that had the boring leaders. To prove that they weren't slavering Commies, the People's Party tended to choose bank managers (Attlee, Wilson, Smith) or kindly uncles (Callaghan, Gaitskell) to front them. Any breach of these rules (such as Michael Foot) led, they believed, to electoral oblivion.

So it was that even potentially interesting leaders such as Neil Kinnock felt the need to conceal their charisma beneath a thick coating of dullness. In Kinnock's case this involved numerous pinstripe suits and endless hours learning the exact pronunciation of foreign leaders' names for use in Prime Minister's Questions ("Mister Goerr-ba-choff", "Msyeu Meet-err- an", etc).

And the parties' respective media men duly built the myths. So Joe Haines would emphasise the common touch of the holidays Wilson enjoyed in a prefab bungalow in the Scilly Isles; Bernard Ingham would wax lyrical about Thatcher's superhuman survival on four hours' sleep.

John Major's victory changed all that. During the 1990 Tory leadership election, Major's allies ruthlessly stuck the knife into his principal challenger for the anti-Heseltine vote, portraying Douglas Hurd as an out-of-touch, toffee-nosed Old Etonian. At the time, Ordinary John's main claim to fame was that he had invented an arcane single-currency fudge, the "hard ecu". His rivals, Hezza and Hurd, were superstars by comparison. Yet - admittedly with a little help from the deposed Leaderene herself - greyness won the day.

For a while the voters, too, seemed to buy it. They had tired of interesting (ie scary) Thatcherism and instead - for one election at least - embraced Major, who would let them sleep safe at night.

But grey had a limited shelf-life as the new black. John Major made the elementary mistake of putting a little fizz into his cabinet through the personality of his Chancellor. Whoops! Voters want the Chancellor to be the sort of guy who puts salts in the bath, not sings in it. In his cabinet of chums, it was predictable that Major would seek to elevate his weird best pal Norman to high office. Predictable, too, that the chums would fall out. (To find out just how rancorously, wait for next month's battle of the memoirs.) On ditching Lamont, Major then made the even worse mistake of appointing a replacement who was both unusual and competent, a formula which left him looking third-rate by comparison.

Having left the "interesting leader" position vacant, the Tories allowed Labour to steal their thunder and choose a failed rock musician to succeed John Smith. Not only that, Tony Blair then had the temerity to go on to win the general election by a landslide. He then promptly reverted to the trusty Tory formula of interesting leader with invisible Chancellor. (Where is Gordon, by the way?)

Which leaves Amanda Platell, the Conservatives' new image-maker, with a conundrum. Is "safe and boring" now what the voters want from Tory leaders? Or does the drubbing meted out to John Major in 1997 mean they would prefer the party to revert to the old "odd but resolute"? In other words, would the voters prefer William Bloke or William Blake to lead the Tories to the New Jerusalem?

In choosing Hague over Clarke two years ago, Tory MPs seemed to prefer the first option. In those days Hague was the dull one, Major's rightful heir. But the numerous relaunches of his image since then suggest that there is some uncertainty still in Central Office. Uncertainty, certainly, in the minds of those focus groups, who can't forget the teenager who read Hansard or the speech that he gave, at the age of 16, to party conference.

And now that they've dug themselves into this hole, the Tories will find it hard to get out. Every new haircut, each new pair of trainers for William or new pendant for Ffion will be scrutinised by newspapers looking for the latest message from Project Hague. Is Thorpe Park cool or boring? How should judo belts be tied? Getting dressed in the morning will turn into a nightmare: what will the press say about these socks? Is this tie snazzy - or naff?

Does it matter? Despite the embarrassment of the last week, both parties know that, come the 2001 election, policies will count for far more than leaders' popularity. Until now, with the exception of the single currency, the Tories have kept their policy thoughts to themselves. After all, one of the few advantages an opposition has lies in its ability to avoid giving hostages to fortune.

But with as little as two years until polling day, the first teasing hints of the Conservatives' policy platform are being revealed. This will not be a radical unpicking of Blairite policy. It is pretty clear that most of Labour's constitutional legislation - on devolution, freedom of information, the disenfranchisement of the hereditaries - will stay. The minimum wage will remain, as will the Food Standards Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority. A Tory chancellor would probably not even take back control of interest rates.

On taxation, we learnt this week that the party is flirting with the top rate of income tax. By choosing to criticise not the rate but the types of people (police inspectors, deputy headteachers and so on) forced to pay it, the Conservatives are clearly thinking of raising thresholds rather than cutting the rate. And after their public sympathy for the road hauliers, we can expect a pledge to cut duty on diesel. But while the economy continues to run relatively smoothly, the Tories are unlikely to promise anything too radical on the tax front.

It looks, therefore, as though Hagueism could suffer from the same inconsistencies as the man himself. "Safe but boring" tweaks to existing Labour policy on most issues, with some "odd but resolute" clear blue water on the single currency.

As far as the voters are concerned, it looks as if the worst possible message is getting across. Hague would like us to see the Tories as "safe but interesting". Instead, we're getting "boring but weird". Is William capable of turning that around in only two years? That is one question Central Office will not be able to rewrite.

Charlie Courtauld is editor of BBC1's 'Question Time', which returns next month, as does Alan Watkins.