Hague: not quite so odd, after all

William Hague always said it would happen. I recall a long conversation with him in his darkest days a couple of years ago, in which he said: "Our moment will come. We just have to be patient. At some point their lead will collapse. When it does, they will never get it back again."

Has the moment, for which Hague has waited with almost superhuman serenity, arrived at last? Certainly, politics feels very different. The mocking, scathing headlines, which must have tested even Hague's Buddhist calm, are now reducing the Blairites to despair. The polls also suggest a dramatic narrowing of the government's lead and, more significantly, a growing dissatisfaction over the delivery of policies. This is confirmed, I am told, by the findings of Philip Gould's focus groups. The Conveyor of Doom's leaked memo about Tony Blair's WI speech was relatively joyful compared with his message to individual ministers. Gould told Home Office ministers only the other day at a long session in Chevening that they were losing the debate on crime. It has got as bad as that. Voters regard Jack Straw as far too liberal and tolerant.

What makes this changing political situation rather odd is that, in policy terms, the government is more sure-footed now than it has ever been. It was wildly praised in the early years when, in reality, it was a little lost. Now it is starting to govern more effectively, the newspapers and voters are turning away.

The premature euphoria in 1997 is partly to blame for the cynicism today. The media were overexcited at the departure of John Major and the novelty of a new, fresh-faced prime minister. Relatively trivial events were blown out of all proportion. Blair meets Clinton at a Conran restaurant? Wow! This showed that the government had handled the transition from opposition to power with un-matched panache. Blair visits a council estate? Hold the front page, the welfare state was being transformed overnight. Blair rides a bike in Amsterdam, with Helmut Kohl by his side? At last, we were at the heart of Europe. Yet the truth was that, for two years, public spending was virtually frozen and Whitehall was electrified by policy reviews rather than policy implementation.

If the media were overexcited, the government was partly to blame, as senior ministers now privately acknowledge. Instead of declaring in the early weeks that the public services were in a dire state and that ministers had a mountain to climb, they claimed almost immediately that they had already reached the peak. By proclaiming revolutionary results so early, ministers inadvertently implied that the challenge had not been especially great. Within a year, they were pointing to a "revolution" in education, transport, health and welfare. Blair was still in this mode after returning from holiday last September. Perhaps the Mediterranean sun had gone to his head, but, in an interview for the Times, he mentioned the word "revolution" 16 times, although the only policy identified with the revolution was the introduction of NHS Direct - a useful innovation, but hardly a revolution.

While ministers were being heaped with unearned praise, mistaking good headlines for successful implementation of policy, the opposite was happening to Hague. He was the catastrophic, bald oddity, leading a doomed party. That was the most flattering it got. It was not long before the Sun killed him off altogether, portraying him as the Monty Python Dead Parrot. This makes his resurrection now seem all the more remarkable. But the reality was different in the first place.

The parrot had never ceased to be, nor were the Tories ever doomed. Unlike Labour in the 1980s, they avoided a bloody civil war and a split. Instead, Hague was given virtually a blank page on which he could draw up any policies he wished. Within weeks, he declared his support for a London mayor and, soon after, for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. At the click of his finger, he democratised his party. The "bigger picture" was left to him, too. At first, he wanted an inclusive, moderate party, so, briefly, that is what he got. Then, as if from nowhere, the Common Sense Revolution descended from the skies of Blackpool last October and his party cheered that as well. At its lowest ebb, the party was infinitely more flexible and pragmatic than Labour in the 1980s.

Hague did not look especially odd, either. It is a law of politics that unsuccessful leaders are always deemed to be "odd". Rising up the political hierarchy in the 1970s, Neil Kinnock was the most glamorous, charismatic, media-friendly politician on the circuit. Once he became Labour leader, he was transformed into the bald windbag who was no good on TV. Hague was not "odd" when he became the youngest Cabinet minister. His "odd" phase occurred when he was 30 points behind in the polls; now it seems to be passing, and people even say his looks have improved.

The Conservatives are getting, in a minor key, the over-lavish treatment enjoyed by new Labour in its early days. They have, we are told, learnt the art of opposition. This is only partially the case. For sure, Hague has learnt how to set the news agenda. He is making waves. But I see no coherent or compelling narrative behind the daily, frenetic populist stands.

Step away from the froth and the Conservatives are still offering a tax guarantee and, at the same time, big increases in public spending. They continue to warn that the euro will be a disaster, but don't rule out entry after the next parliament. They pose as the party of deregulation, but support the minimum wage. Their membership remains desperately unrepresentative. The party is having huge difficulties, for example, in selecting women candidates, let alone ethnic minorities, in winnable seats. The shadow cabinet is virtually anonymous. With a few exceptions, the parliamentary party is one of the least talented in living memory. It efficiently echoes Daily Mail editorials; otherwise, it is difficult to summarise what the party is for.

Conversely, the government is suffering from a bout of abuse, which was more deserved in the early years. It is no longer driven by spin. After the election, when ministers were getting accustomed to power - the 18 years in opposition have been greatly underestimated as an explanation for the early, paralysing caution - they were dependent on deceptively dazzling headlines. Now that they are working furiously on policy implementation, they are dismissed as a bunch of headline-seekers. The government is being hit by a double whammy. It does not get a very good press, while most voters assume that its spellbinding spin-doctors are calling all the tunes.

Yet the current spending review must be one of the most painstaking of its kind ever undertaken. "Bloody Gordon!" is a cathartic expletive that regularly escapes the lips of even the most amiable Cabinet ministers at the moment.

The Treasury, with the full support of Downing Street, has rightly linked additional funds to policy reform. For the first time, senior civil servants in the Treasury have to consider the impact of additional funding, not just on the economy, but also on policy areas such as education and health. This has focused ministerial minds in the spending departments. The outcome of the review in July should be the moment when the government's message becomes much more clearly defined. One of its more noble aims is to revive the appalling public services. This is a much more potent message than introspective speeches to the WI about how the government is traditional as well as modern. (Or was it the other way around?)

Nor is the Cabinet passionately divided over the euro. The seething debate is over how its case should be presented this side of the election. Whether Gordon Brown likes it or not, that debate is already being resolved in front of our eyes. Ministers, from Blair downwards, have begun to highlight the potential benefits of entry. Blair's recent interview with the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, in the Financial Times was his latest attempt.

The Prime Minister has also given the Britain in Europe group the freedom to step up what was previously a pathetically cautious campaign (the first signs of this being visible in Simon Buckby's article for the New Statesman last week). Such tentative excursions do not contradict the basic policy, or approach (the term "policy" implies something much more elevated than the government is offering), that entry will be determined by economic conditions. For all its evasiveness, this is miles away from the "wait and see" policy of the Major government, which was shaped by a split over whether or not entry into the single currency was advisable under any circumstances.

Politics is going through a peculiar phase. The Blairites, nervy when they were 30 points ahead, are understandably anxious now. They are condemned as a bunch of spinners as they finally get to grips with policy. Hague has acquired the art of spinning at the very moment he is proclaimed a leader of substance. Even so, with a strong economy, it is the policy-makers who have the cards to play. Hague's moment, which he foresaw two years ago, has not arrived yet.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs