Magazine article The Spectator

Your Turn to Do the Business

Magazine article The Spectator

Your Turn to Do the Business

Article excerpt

THE STARK truth is that, one year after being elected Tory leader, William Hague is not at the races. And there is no obvious sign of imminent improvement.

Much of this is explained by the competition. The Prime Minister is everywhere and still breaking all opinion poll records. Yet the Premier never sits back. He constantly repeats the `no complacency' mantra, and woe betide those who let their guard slip. But we all do. I recall, some months before the general election, being asked exactly what my job entailed. My flippant reply was that I provided the water for Tony Blair to walk on. Some people smiled, but no one failed to get the point. What is extraordinary is that it is possible successfully to crack that same joke 13 months into the new government.

In the face of all this it is tempting to advise Mr Hague to shut up shop, wait for mistakes and rely on unforeseen events to come to his rescue. After all, his efforts at gaining a positive personal profile have singularly failed. Ageing boy wonder with monotonous voice and baseball cap is a tag he could do without. Few people know much about him and even fewer care.

Nonetheless, inertia is not the answer. Neither is constant but unfocused activity. It is a long haul. This means having patience, picking issues as they arise and exploiting them relentlessly in pursuit of causing permanent damage. A scatter-gun approach is useless. Tony Blair is so popular that most things harmlessly bounce off him. Bide your time. Go for it only when a flank is genuinely exposed, yet remember not to behave in a way that can be depicted as extreme.

One of Mr Blair's great strengths is that almost no one, no matter how they voted in May 1997, believes he is extreme. Occupying the centre ground is critical to New Labour's success. If Mr Hague takes up positions which put him on the periphery he might as well pack up now. So he must have the courage to take on his party where necessary. He has begun to do this on party reform and gained grudging acceptance. Europe is another matter.

Europe remains the litmus test. Not surprisingly, there are two schools of opinion on how Mr Hague should address it. If he believes what he said in his Fontainebleau speech, he should tell every one of his leading party figures that they have to toe the Eurosceptic line or they are out. Blood will be spilt, but clarity and tough leadership matter. He may feel that the division is so great that he can only stay in the circus by riding both horses. The rank and file may be so anti-Europe that he can do nothing else. Yet with the average age of his party members now well over 60, Mr Hague may feel that he has to look to the future.

As things stand, the right communications advice is for him to go for the tough leader approach. If he is convinced that the `no ERM for ten years' position is right he should take it. It provides a clear stance and a distinctly different policy from his opponent. And, given the volatility of public opinion on the issue, it passes the extremism test. That is where he is trying to position himself at the moment. What holds him back is the sense that he must not impose his will on those who disagree with him. Unless he creates the belief that this is what he is doing and his will must prevail, the perception of weakness continues. In this respect the defection of Peter Temple-Morris, while embarrassing, may help. Mr Hague can say that this is the price he is prepared to pay for standing firm on Europe.

He must also begin creating an aura of gravitas around himself. …

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