Hague's Happy Hour

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But will it last long enough to carry the Conservatives to victory in the next elections?
By HELEN GIBSON Bournemouth

Since its resounding election defeat three years ago, the Conservative Party that transformed Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher has exhibited all the sense of direction and purpose of a headless chicken. A deeply uncharismatic William Hague has polled all-time lows for an opposition leader, and the party faithful have struggled to keep the faith. As the Tories have battled to find a chink in the popular armor of Tony Blair's New Labour, defeat in Britain's next general election-possibly as early as next May-has seemed inevitable.

So why, all of a sudden, are the Conservatives feeling good enough about themselves for Hague to fire up their annual conference in Bournemouth with a speech saying the Tories were now "ready for government"? Could the party be on the comeback trail?

One reason for Bournemouth's upbeat mood was Labour's discomfiture at its own conference the week before, where a hitherto insouciant Blair admitted to having misjudged the public mood on soaring fuel prices. With no big new ideas on offer-nor even panaceas, for that matter-Labour's long honeymoon with the British public was over. Said Tory activist David Herdson from Hague's native Yorkshire, "Labour has a parliamentary majority of about 180 seats-that's an awful lot to get back, but now there's a feeling we at least stand a chance of winning."

That is a startling turnaround. At the end of August Labour looked unassailable with a lead of 15 and even 20 points in the polls. Then a protest by truckers and farmers over high fuel taxes nearly brought the country to a halt, wrong-footing a government which had misread the level of public disaffection. Perceptions of government ineptitude were then reinforced by the decision to provide further millions in subsidies for the much-derided Millennium Dome. Labour's ratings plunged and by mid-September the stunned Tories found themselves between two and eight points ahead in the polls.

The protests over the 72% tax that makes British fuel the most expensive in Europe were the culmination of a slew of slow-burning gripes about the government: pensioners bitterly resented this year's paltry $1.08 increase in the already meager weekly state pension; farmers accused the government of indifference to the worst farming crisis since the 1930s; business leaders fumed at ever-increasing regulatory red tape; and, although promised significant funding by a government exchequer bulging with tax revenues, the social welfare, education and health sectors show few signs of improvement. As a result, Labour suddenly looked vulnerable.

Could it lose the next election? Not really, says Bob Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling organization. "There's no way that the Tories can win-it's an insurmountable mountain in one parliamentary term," he says. Even the two-point lead MORI gave the Tories last month would translate into 57 seats fewer than Labour's owing to the way constituency boundaries are drawn.

The Tory lead was brief and soon evaporated, though in one poll the Tories dropped to only two points behind Labour, a significant improvement over recent times. Whether this dissatisfaction can overshadow Labour's achievement in running a still-robust economy remains questionable. One obstacle to a Tory comeback is the credibility of 39-year-old, Oxford-educated Hague as a future Prime Minister. The party faithful, who admire Hague's toughness through years of savage criticism, are now rallying behind him. But Hague has yet to sell himself and his relatively unknown shadow cabinet to the wider public. Says taxi owner Mike Rigley from Dorset, a Tory by instinct who voted Labour last time, "I'm fed up with this lot now, but I'm not sure about Hague-there's something lacking there, maybe statesmanship; some have it, some don't."

In his Bournemouth speech, Hague sought to dispel those doubts and rebut Labour claims that the Tories have gone way off to the right. He stressed the "inclusive" nature of the modern Conservative Party and made much of his childhood in a Yorkshire industrial town, his state school education and the hardworking farmer, miner and steelworker families who were his neighbors. He portrayed New Labour as an arrogant and out-of-touch party run by a metropolitan Úlite. "New Labour was not a philosophy, it was a fashion," Hague said. "Nothing is more unfashionable than a fashion which is out of fashion."

Whether Hague can win over the country by May is doubtful. But at least the Tories look as though they may become an opposition worth some attention.