Now Hague can set the political agenda

Simon Heffer sees hope for the Tories if their leader can sound like a 19th century Manchester liber

Just after last October's Conservative Party conference, I bravely wrote in the New Statesman that the Tories were, at last, turning a corner. Promptly, Jeffrey Archer happened. The vehicle went sharply into reverse. New doubts were cast over William Hague's judgement and, therefore, his leadership. The government continued to make cock-ups of its own, but none looked quite so amateur as those of the Conservative leadership.

More than six months later, the vehicle appears to be moving forward, and up through the gears, again. Opinion polls that, before Christmas, were universally negative about Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition now show conflicting evidence.

This is not merely because the public is weary of Labour's authoritarianism, and depressed by the remarkably low quality of cabinet minister it has to confront every time it sees a Byers or a Milburn on television. It is also because Hague has lighted upon issues that worry the public - issues that the government appears complacent about.

By the time you read this, you will know the results of the 4 May local elections: but the indications during the run-up were that Labour was about to take a pasting, with the Tories performing better than at any comparable election since the early 1980s.

By talking about asylum-seekers and the collapse of law and order in the countryside, Hague cleverly picked two issues that are legitimate local government concerns.

These two questions alone, however, will not cause the Tories to win the next general election. But Labour has underestimated Hague's new ability to impress public opinion. He has acquired this not just by seizing upon controversial issues, but by simply having stayed at his post for three years.The steadier hand he has displayed since the Archer debacle has now translated itself into an enviable knack of dictating the news agenda. For the first time, he has the ear of the public.

More important for the Tories, a leader who says that householders who shoot burglars should not necessarily go to prison, or that asylum-seekers fleeing from nothing more threatening than a low GDP should not be afforded the hospitality of the British welfare state, fits very much with their expectations.

Hague needs to use his access to a new, wider audience with care. There was nothing wrong with the opportunism he displayed after the Tony Martin case: after all, new Labour was born out of total opportunism, which is why, presumably, it recognises a threat when it sees one. He needs now, however, to identify a few other things that will maintain and develop the country's new respect for him.

He has some strong foundations on which to build. "Middle England" does not like what it sees as a cultural revolution being imposed on this country largely against its will. The inordinate amount of time and effort that the government has spent in the past year trying to secure additional rights for homosexuals is but one example of this. The family remains important to Middle England; yet it sees the government, with every Budget, eroding the few remaining advantages married families enjoy. The Dome, with its antihistorical, non-British flavour, also exemplifies the problem. It offends against the love of tradition and culture so ridiculed by the centre-left, but so powerfully felt among millions of voters whose support new Labour won in 1997. Its failure tars Labour with the brush of irrelevance and disconnection, and its grim attendance figures become a daily rebuke to that attitude.

This is a rich seam for Hague to exploit. However, he needs to advertise, and soon, how the Tories will tackle the everyday, tangible problems that the electorate is still encountering after three years of new Labour. He needs to reveal how his party would improve the National Health Service. He needs to set out why the administration of schools would be better under him. He needs to convince us that, after his own party's abject failure to reform the welfare state during 18 years in power, and Labour's apparent abandonment of the project in any meaningful sense, he has a plan that can, and will, do it. Above all, he needs to illustrate how he will do this within a framework of lower taxes, and how lowering taxes will improve investment and innovation.

The Tories' best building block, however, is the countryside. Although the Tony Martin case resonated in suburban and urban areas too, it proved the government's failure to grasp what life is really like in rural Britain.

This failure was first exposed with the minority matter of the right to hunt foxes; it has now branched out into manifold other considerations.

The collapse of large parts of our agriculture as a viable business, and its knock-on effects, are paramount. However, high taxes on petrol (a racket begun by the Tories, but let that pass) that inhibit movement of people and goods in places with no public transport remain a particular gripe. So, too, do the closure of local post offices and the absence of a police force outside country towns.

Labour has 180 rural or semi-rural seats. Many who live in them, including some who voted Labour in 1997, think that Labour doesn't give a stuff about the countryside: and no amount of stunts involving ministers in wellies will change their minds.

If that is an opportunity for the Tories - and it is certainly likely to be their best source of seats next time round - then so, too, is a wider philosophical point. The electorate discerns a tone that it actively dislikes about new Labour. A mature, prosperous, well-educated people thinks it has earned the right to be left alone. However, it feels that this is a government that, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, seeks to "nationalise behaviour". There is on one level an authoritarianism, on another a sanctimony about the government as it seeks to lead public opinion on a range of social and political issues in a way that the public simply does not wish to be led.

Hague's best bet is going to be to use his blunt, northern tones to sound like a 19th-century Manchester liberal, and to appeal to the public's desire to get on with their lives without the constant interference of a bunch of second-rate ex-polytechnic lecturers.

None of this might seem very "inclusive", let alone "new" or "modern". Yet Hague's opportunity lies in one of the great misunderstandings that ensued from Labour's great victory three years ago. There are still people at the heart of new Labour who believe that the party won because the public wanted a "new Britain". It didn't. It won because the public was fed up with the inadequacy, prevarication, incompetence and dishonesty of John Major and his cronies. Those old faces aside, the electorate was quite happy with the way things were going in the old Britain.

About four million people who generally vote at elections stayed at home at the last election - signifying their disgust with Major but also their inability to commit class treachery by voting Labour. If Hague can persuade them to come out of doors on polling day 2001, are they likely to think that new Labour has done so well that it now deserves their support? The answer to that is to be found in the present gloom, and occasional flashes of panic, of one or two senior ministers. It remains the case that only a miracle will put Hague into Downing Street next year, but the elective dictatorship has now entered the departure lounge.

The author, our Conservative Party correspondent, is a columnist for the Daily Mail. His pamphlet What Tories Want is published by Politeia, £5 (tel 020-7240 5070)