Thank your lucky stars, William

Poor William Hague. Whoever writes about the Tory leader prefaces his name with a forlorn adjectives. Either he is "poor" or "unlucky", sometimes both. Even Nigel Lawson, writing in what my editor calls Another Magazine, referred to "poor William Hague". He was not even writing directly about Hague, which made his fleeting observation all the more telling. Lawson took as read, needing no further justification or explanation, that his once-mighty party was now led by someone who deserves our pity.

All observers of politics, from lofty Tory peers to lowly political commentators, view events through a distorting prism. So Neil Kinnock, the exuberant, charismatic star of the media in the early 1980s, became "poor Kinnock" soon after he had the misfortune to win the leadership contest in 1983. Before long, everyone, even sympathisers, viewed his performance through these negative lens. By the mid-1980s, the media star was perceived as hopeless on television. The smartly incisive strategist who foiled single-handedly the Tony Benn deputy leadership bid in 1981 was seen as the indecisive, long-winded waffler. The longer a leader is perceived in such a light, the more he or she becomes that person. What begins as a grossly distorted view of a leader becomes, ultimately, the reality. Poor Kinnock.

While he is still Tory leader, let us remove the lens from which we all view Hague and consider his position more objectively. I do not believe that he is an unlucky leader. Indeed, compared with many opposition leaders, certainly Kinnock and arguably Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, he has had plenty of good fortune.

For a start, his depleted, demoralised party is remarkably passive and therefore very easily led. Remember that a Tory civil war was seen as the most likely consequence of a Blairite landslide. Instead, policies have been changed in all sorts of areas and there has been no fuss. All of a sudden, the Tories support a London mayor, present themselves as the party of local government, and look set to come out with a proposal for the House of Lords that will be more radical than any measure put forward by the government. Hardly a squeak follows these U-turns and changes of direction. If Kinnock wanted to change his party's policy on bus lanes in Ipswich, a volcanic eruption was always on the cards. The Tory landslides in the 1980s gave more fire to Labour's divided soul. The Blairite landslide has left the Tories nearly lifeless, which is an infinitely preferable condition for a leader.

This applies to Europe as much as any other issue. Hague is lucky to be a leader who has followed the SDP experience. The disappearance of the SDP not long after its glittering arrival on the political stage is one of the main reasons why the Clarkes and Heseltines will never defect or form their own centre-right pro- European party.

In the 1980s, Labour was virtually destroyed by a real schism. Hague faces only a pro-European, breakaway Tory party set up by a couple of decent but unknown MEPs. Just because they are on the right side of the argument should not obscure the fact that the pro-Europeans inside Hague's party are "in a terrible hole". That is why they want Tony Blair to hold the single currency referendum as soon as possible. Their chance to regain control of the Tory party comes with a "yes" vote in the referendum. Until then, the Eurosceptics are in charge. Which is another piece of good luck for Hague. Last week's crisis in Brussels is a dream story for him. The Tory Eurosceptics have been screaming about fraud and corruption in Brussels for years. And what a way to illustrate their case.

The near lifeless state of the Tory party makes it easier, also, for its leader to carry out a purge of the unpopular, ageing stars. In the 1980s, the heavyweights of previous Labour governments fought on in the hope that power would be theirs again. Leaders did not dare tread on their egos too much for fear that they would be blown away in the resulting explosion.

Hague has had no such problem. Michael Howard, the former home secretary, is the latest to leave the front line voluntarily. Instead of creating a vote-losing row, the vote loser has taken a bow of his own accord. Meanwhile, the scale of the last election defeat was such that rivals are outside the House of Commons, too scared to risk fighting a by-election.

Elections are another area where Hague has been extremely fortunate. Michael Portillo might be too nervous to throw his hat in the ring, but the by-election in Newark is the kind of dream contest that most opposition leaders pray for and never get: a government MP with a small majority being forced to resign against the background of sleaze.

What is more, in the local elections, the Tories could gain a couple of thousand seats without performing especially well. Thanks to the proportional voting system Blair has introduced for the European and Scottish elections, the Tories will make gains in those contests, too. For the first time since Blair became leader in July 1994, he will look vulnerable electorally this summer. Lucky Hague.

Only there is a twist to this tale. So far Hague has failed to make the most of the blank piece of paper offered to him by a malleable party. Few ideas are emerging to give the Tories a distinctive appeal. Nor has Hague got a grip, yet, on potential weaknesses in new Labour's seemingly invincible armoury. The other problem is more deep-seated. Once a perception of a leader has been formed it is almost impossible to shift. The elections this summer are Hague's opportunity to shift it. If he fails to do so, he will be in deep trouble. He will not be able to blame his lack of good fortune. Poor Hague.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong