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banner Friday, 29 September, 2000, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Hague needs to look like election winner
Opposition leader William Hague at last year's party conference
William Hague will seek to rally his Tory troops
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

When William Hague addresses the Tory party conference in Bournemouth his over-riding aim will be to persuade his troops they really can win the next election.

After three years of gloom and despair in the aftermath the 1997 election disaster, the opposition is finally getting a spring in its step.

Until the Labour party conference, Tony Blair was in serious trouble, while Mr Hague had scored some significant victories and the Tories had racked up some much-needed election wins.

Then the fuel tax protests, the Bernie Ecclestone row and the pensions issue erupted and badly battered the prime minister.

And, even during Mr Blair's succesful conference he was still hit by a union rebellion over pensions - something Mr Hague is bound to characterise as the return of Old Labour.

And now his euro policy has suffered a knock with the Danish "no" vote.

So it is no surprise that there is much upbeat talk from shadow ministers about the party's prospects at the next poll.

The party still has a mountain to climb and few really believe it can pull off a sensational win.

The opinion polls are already changing and the best estimate is that the two main parties are virtually neck and neck.

But talk of victory is no longer easily dismissed as pure fantasy - the election might well turn into a proper race.

William Hague wants to keep the pound
Promoting the 'Keep the Pound' campaign
It is still a long way to the poll and, as has been shown over the past few months, Labour's support can prove fragile.

Making an impact

So, the Conservative leader approaches the conference in better shape than he has been since the day he was elected.

All talk of leadership challenges has stopped and even his critics have had to concede that he has started to make an impact with the public.

His challenges to the government earlier in the year over the asylum seekers, law and order and pensions hit home and raised his profile.

Unfortunately he has managed to undermine some of that with elaborate claims about his 14-pint-a-day drinking habit in his teens.

He may have been trying to finally ditch his image as a political swot and appear one of the lads, but the move badly backfired leading to claims he was wildly exaggerating - and in any case, is it something he should have been boasting about?

And his pre-summer popularity failed to stay the course through the long parliamentary recess with opinion polls showing him slipping back.

It was only the fuel crisis that saw them rising sharply again.

Now he will want to capitalise on his new strong position and use the rally as the launch pad for the general election.

There will undoubtedly be some more detailed policy announcements on health and education in the wake of his "Believing in Britain" pre-manifesto launch.

That document should, by then, have recieved the overwhelming support of ordinary party members who have been given the opportunity to vote on its contents.

It is also certian that the conference will see a great emphasis on the Tories' "Keep the Pound" campaign - particularly in the wake of the Danish vote.

Mr Hague has long seen this as the "clear blue water" between him and Tony Blair and there is some evidence that he is more in tune with public feeling than is the prime minister.

He would probably dearly love to turn the next election campaign into a mini-referendum on the euro, confident he would gain support for his stance.

But there will also by attacks on the government's alleged arrogance and claims that, despite Mr Blair's promises to listen, the government is still deaf to people's real concerns.

Leadership challenge

Inevitably one of the star turns at the conference will be Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo.

Despite persistent speculation over Mr Portillo's leadership ambitions he has been eager to display his loyalty to Mr Hague.

Some of his supporters have even been disappointed at his performance since he was re-elected, worrying that he may have lost the necessary killer instinct to make a leader.

But he has made some key policy changes that should further limit the areas of dispute between the two main parties.

He has ditched opposition to the minimum wage and an independent Bank of England and has refused to match the government's spending programme.

More controversially, he also ditched the "guarantee" that, under a Tory government, the burden of taxation would always fall.

While that will allow Labour to claim the Tories would become the party of cuts, it has given them more room for manoeuvre.

And it could well see a return to the old arguments over Labour being dubbed the tax-and-spend party while the Tories portray themselves as the low tax party.

But, thanks to the decision to abandon the tax "guarantee" it also means Mr Hague will not be able to offer any future "guarantees" on anything.

The conference is also likely to see the usual tensions over Europe re-emerging.

The pro-euro wing will argue that the party should abandon its opposition to the single currency, while Eurosceptics will hint that total withdrawal from the EU should be the way forward.

But it is likely it will be a far more positive and optimistic conference than the Tories have seen for years.

If Mr Hague manages to concentrate members' minds on the looming election while raising his public profile and mapping out some key policies, he will count it a success.

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See also:

09 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Hague challenged to drink 14 pints
08 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Leak warns 'out of touch' Tories
01 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Hague praises Bush
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