With sweet victory comes a bitter hangover

 

MAYBE he should have listened to mother. Mrs Stella Hague didn't want her son to run for the Tory leadership, although she subsequently confirmed that - having committed himself - she naturally wanted him to win. Father Nigel never doubted that he should, and doubtless feels as pleased as punch to find his son the youngest Conservative leader since 1783.

William Hague himself can justly feel elated. The champagne flowed last night as he and his allies savoured a quite clear-cut victory - the more delicious given a dramatic, and ultimately failed, last-minute attempt by arch-enemies Kenneth Clarke and John Redwood to thwart this youngest Son of Thatcher. But along with the hangover comes the nagging worry that his is a bitter, and still bitterly divided, party.

The Clarke/Redwood alliance smacked of clever politics. It enlivened an otherwise dull and protracted battle. To lovers of the sport, it seemed the just and predictable response to the earlier Howard/Lilley gambit to ditch Mr Redwood the self-proclaimed intellectual and spiritual keeper of the Thatcherite flame.

But in 24 short hours, Conservative MPs "lying bastards" as one of Mr Hague's campaign managers memorably called them in the early stages of the campaign decided this was one dirty deal too many. Devotees of BBC's Newsnight, they must have winced on Wednesday night when the members of the "dream ticket" were introduced to the wider public by old footage from the hit series The Odd Couple.

The "shotgun wedding" of leading Europhile and arch-Euro-sceptic had earlier stung Baroness Thatcher out of her long silence. She reportedly "hit the roof" and immediately descended on the Hague camp, hitting the Commons bars and tearooms, and then working the telephones, urging the faithful back into line.

By breakfast time yesterday some of the Redwoodites who had earlier intimated their willingness to "do the unthinkable" - had already repented. And those with continuing doubts clearly had them removed over the cornflakes, as they digested a torrent of ridicule in what we may still loosely term "the Tory press".

The Daily Mail said the Clarke/Redwood double act defied political gravity, the pair enjoying as much in common as "a hush puppy and an alien from outer space". The Times thundered that Mr Redwood's decision was "an act of folly, malice and pique" which diminished him and his beliefs. And the Guardian cheerfully observed that "when two such opposites forge an alliance, then surely the emphasis can only be on the forgery".

All but six of Mr Redwood's supporters decided they had no taste for it, and rowed in behind Lady Thatcher's second anointed - many of them doubtless praying as they did so that he will defy the predictions, and bear no resemblance to the first.

In the end the result was decisive. Mr Hague could be believed when he said it exceeded his wildest expectations. Every Westminster pundit had forecast a photo-finish. The majority was 22, 92 MPs in this depleted electorate voting with their Euro-sceptic instincts, and opting, in the end, to trust youth against experience.

Within minutes of the result being declared, the pundits were at their work questioning the ability of the new leader to reconcile his party's warring factions. Mr Hugh Dykes, one of the vanquished on May 1st and a leading pro-European, appeared on screen to declare that Mr Clarke would remain a very important player in the Tory parliamentary party. The Thatcherite journalist Simon Heffer - never reconciled to the great betrayal in 1990 - puffed that Mr Hague couldn't hold it together, and that there would be another leadership election within two years.

Yet even as these words were spoken, the landscape was changing. Mr Clarke appeared with Mr Hague to announce that he had previously decided that, if he did not win, he would finally retire to the backbenches. That this had the ring of truth did not prevent one reflecting on a certain lack of grace, not to mention commitment.

But Mr Hague won't be bothered about that. Mr Clarke has counted himself among the retired, along with Mr Michael Heseltine and Mr John Major. And Mr Hague owes nothing to Mr Redwood. He today begins the task of fashioning his shadow cabinet with a surprisingly free hand.

And when he submits himself to a wider Tory electorate, as he has promised, he will almost certainly discover that the rank-and-file have decided he was the man they wanted all along.