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Monday, July 6, 1998 Published at 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK

UK Politics

Hague's first year: a long way still to go

William Hague took over the leadership of the Conservative Party one year ago. BBC News online's Nick Assinder assesses his first 12 months in the job:

Robin Oakley reports on Hague's triumph over experience
One year ago, on June 19 1997, William Hague won the battle to replace John Major as leader of the demoralised and deeply divided Tory party.

Hague thanks Tories for reform endorsement
At 36, he was the youngest Conservative leader for more than 200 years - since Pitt the Younger - and he had the mammoth task of bringing his party back to life after one of its most devastating election defeats ever.

[ image: Hague beat off competition to replace John Major]
Hague beat off competition to replace John Major
He beat off veteran operators like former ministers Kenneth Clarke, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and John Redwood to win the final round of the contest with a bigger than expected majority.

He immediately set about the task of recreating the Tories in the same way Tony Blair had dragged Labour back from the political wilderness.

One of the major issues that had deeply divided the party and contributed significantly to its election disaster was Europe, and specifically the single European currency.

Eurosceptic path

It was clear that, by voting for Mr Hague rather than Mr Clarke, MPs had set the Tories on a firmly Eurosceptic path. But it was some time before the new leader revealed exactly how far he was prepared to go on the issue and, when he did, it marked a turning point for the Conservatives.

[ image: First party conference performance]
First party conference performance
In the meantime, he launched a giant policy review programme which is now under the guidance of Mr Lilley, and attempted to revive the party's popularity.

But, despite some major changes within the party, the polls have remained persistently gloomy.

Before his keynote first party conference performance as leader last October, polls showed the Tories had slumped to their worst level for almost a century while New Labour enjoyed unprecedented support - even building on their landslide general election showing.

The polls then put Labour on 60% - 16 points up on their election showing - and the Tories on just 22% - nine points down.

Since then things have only marginally improved and latest polls have shown that Tony Blair is more popular even among Tory voters than is Mr Hague.

Usual suspects

The most recent poll showed Labour on 55% and the Tories on 27% - a 7.5% swing to Labour since the general election.

[ image: Rumours from the backbenches]
Rumours from the backbenches
It also suggested that 45% of Tory voters were satisfied with the way Tony Blair was doing his job compared to only 38% who said the same about Mr Hague.

There are even some claims that senior backbenchers are already plotting to oust him although he will easily be able to brush them aside as the "usual suspects".

Mr Hague's supporters argue that he has, rightly, spent his first year trying to sort out the party and its policies and concentrated less on his public image.

But even so, as he marks his first anniversary as leader it will be in the knowledge that his next big task must be to start turning around the opinion poll ratings well before the next election.

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