MR HAGUE TAKES CHARGE

 

Mr William Jefferson Hague could be forgiven for pinching himself this morning to confirm that his election victory really happened. His triumph was by a wider margin than even his more fervent supporters had hoped for and it makes him the youngest leader of the Conservative Party since the 24 year old Pitt the Younger in 1783. He is also the least experienced leader since Pitt and the demands of the job today bear no comparison. Mr Hague will know that yesterday's achievement is nothing compared to the daunting task that now faces him; one wonders how many of those who voted for him could be confident that he is up to the task.

Yesterday's result was harsh on Mr Ken Clarke. A front bench member for 26 years, a minister for 18 years, a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer and a heavyweight politician who can mince opponents in the Commons, he failed because sufficient Tory MPs were opposed to his pro European beliefs. Quick witted, combative and confident, Mr Clarke had the overwhelming support of party members and Tory peers and the total support of Tory MEPs. But the party in the Commons is not in tune with the party as a whole and so Mr Clarke joins the likes of Michael Heseltine and Rab Butler, formidable politicians who fell at the last fence.

But, it would be a mistake to think that the election of Mr Clarke would have solved the Tories problems. Mr Clarke's strength lies in his determination, not in his work rate and the revival of the party will call for endless energy. Similarly, Mr Clarke is rightly praised for focus; he believes in his policies and, by and large he sticks to them. But Mr Clarke has never come across as a visionary and vision is something the party needs now, in spades. Mr Hague certainly has the energy and he was a hardworking and successful Welsh Secretary but he has exhibited next to no vision in his short political life.

Mr Hague spoke yesterday about the need to put the party "back on the road to unity and to power". He will know that one of his first tasks will be to traverse the country and start rebuilding morale among the party faithful. Also high up on his list of priorities will be the development of coherent and convincing policies. This is where Mr Hague may stumble. His views on most major issues are unformed, his view on the single currency is only eight days old. Mr Clarke said he would form a shadow cabinet of all shades of opinion and have the right wing Mr Redwood as his shadow Chancellor. This was a daft proposition and Mr Hague is correct when he says it is more important to have a cohesive team than to have everyone on it. Mr Hague's problem is that those not on his team and consigned to the backbenches will be out to scupper his ship.

The Conservative Party remains deeply split. Arguably Mr Hague, no dogmatist, is best placed to unite the party; certainly none of his rivals could have. But the party also thought that honest, amenable, hard working John Major could pull off the miracle. It is possible the party has become simply ungovernable. Mr Hague must prove himself quickly and not have it said of him, as it was of Mr Major, that he is "in office but not in power".