Hague finds his British Way ahead

 

Even as they returned to London last weekend the Tory party's spin doctors would have known what to expect from the weekend press; a pretty uniform thumbs-down for their Bournemouth "comeback".

To the chagrin of the party leadership the "big beasts" of yesteryear had continued to hog the headlines. Even as Mr Hague claimed victory in the party ballot on the euro, the one big issue on which it differs with Mr Blair, the Sun was proclaiming the Conservatives an "ex-party" and depicting their leader as a dead parrot. But few of them can have suspected there was worse to come.

In historical and philosophical terms, Mr Hague's "British Way" sounded a potentially useful alternative to Mr Blair's still somewhat vague Third Way for British politics. The embarrassment, as we now know, was that Chancellor Gordon Brown had been that way before. Mr Hague's speech truly did contain the something borrowed and something blue, right down to that "golden thread" of liberty and freedom permeating endless glorious chapters of British history.

Still harder then to say that, standing in the shadow of that ghastly Ikea platform ensemble, the Conservative leader's performance actually sounded pretty good. Many outside his ranks are prepared to admit that Mr Hague is in fact an impressive platform performer. The jokes were good. He gathered together a number of themes which might serve the Tories well as the going starts to get tougher for Mr Blair's government.

And one fancies his jibe at New Labour - "If you believe in everything and believe in nothing" - might find a stronger resonance around the country when the contradictions of the government's tax-and-spend commitments are put to the economic test.

For the time being, of course, this is all deeply unfashionable. The prevailing mood is dismissive of Mr Hague; the wisdom that he assumed the leadership too early and, should he fail to deliver impressive results in next year's various elections, may be forced to vacate it rather sooner than he thinks. The "shadow" of Mr Michael Portillo certainly wasn't difficult to find in Bournemouth last week.

This might prove rather fanciful. For starters, Mr Portillo is without a seat in the House of Commons. There are painful memories of the botch he made of things during Mr Major's leadership crisis. And his televised excursions around Britain have yielded little evidence of a definitive, alternative agenda.

So Mr Hague may prove more secure than he appears. And his increasing focus is on a very different shadow now casting itself across the British body politic.

Just ahead of the Scottish referendum last year, Baroness Thatcher dismissed Mr Blair's programme of constitutional reform as shallow and naive.

Barely months after the Tory party's dismissal from power few were inclined to listen. Even now, after years of trenchant opposition, Mr Hague and his colleagues are adjusting themselves to the reality that the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly will take power in January 2000. But if it is accepted that these things will come to pass, there is growing questioning as to where it all will lead.

Labour appears to be recovering ground from the SNP in the build-up to next year's Scottish election, and even Alex Salmond probably suspects he will not be negotiating Scotland's independence one year hence.

But close observers of the Scottish scene see a different scenario unfolding four or eight years down the line. What, they wonder, might Scotland's response be, come the day, as at some point it will, when English votes restore the Conservatives to power in London?

Long before we get to that point Mr Blair, prompted and harried by Mr Hague and the Conservatives, will have to address the question of the constitutional imbalance created by Scottish and Welsh devolution.

The weakest part of Mr Hague's speech last week came with his avowal that, while the Tories would not become an English nationalist party, their answer might involve an English parliament of some kind.

High Tory constitutionalists were aghast. Their very real fear is that an English parliament would feed the self-fulfilling prophecy of a federal Britain, leading in turn to absorption in a federal Europe. Like the party leadership they, too, are forced to admit they have as yet no definitive answer to the West Lothian question.

But, like Mr Blair, they know that it really hasn't gone away. If their own way ahead remains unclear, they sense danger for Mr Blair, as likewise they sense opportunity in the muddle over the government's plans for reform of the House of Lords.

It isn't just High Tories with a fondness for the hereditary principle who are astounded that Mr Blair thinks to scrap the rights of hereditary peers, while dumping the rest of the issue with a royal commission.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that constitutional issues, like foreign affairs, are of little interest to the electorate and impinge rarely on elections. That said (and for all the embarrassing charges of plagiarism) one fancies that Mr Hague may find plenty of currency in Mr Brown's "British Way" on the long journey ahead.