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Friday, 2 March, 2001, 17:03 GMT
Uphill struggle for Hague
William Hague
Keeping up the pre-election pace may not be easy
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Tories are gathering in Harrogate for what most believe will be their last big rally before the general election.


Each of us has a vital role to play in the general election and we must campaign with the unwavering belief that we can win

Michael Ancram
Representatives will hear electioneering speeches from big hitters like Ann Widdecombe, Michael Portillo and Michael Ancram.

And the Spring conference will be brought to a close with a major speech by leader William Hague, who will attempt to whip up his troops for an imminent poll.

But it will be a big task.

Disturbing reading

Recent opinion polls have proved disturbing reading for Mr Hague, suggesting he has made virtually no headway against Tony Blair since the last election.

Some even warn that Labour might be heading for a second landslide victory, although most people still believe the gap between the parties will narrow during the campaign.

Last autumn's annual conference saw shadow ministers delivering an upbeat message that they really could win the next general election.

Tony Blair was suffering from his most difficult period in office with revolts over pensions and fuel tax.

One poll even put Mr Hague in front.

But the recovery was not sustained and the Tories soon slumped back to a worryingly low rating.

Work cut out

So Mr Hague will have his work cut out convincing representatives at this conference that they have a realistic chance of winning the next election.

Conservative party chairman Michael Ancram
Ancram: Rallying call
Party chairman Michael Ancram set the tone for the rally in opening remarks in the official conference guide.

"There is much at stake and it is an election we must win.

"We live under a government which takes no pride in maintaining standards and values, but which is always content to accept the second rate and the route of least resistance.

'We can win'

"We live under a government which cannot distinguish truth from spin, which is ashamed of our history, which mocks our national pride and which is happy to scrap our currency and sell out our national sovereignty," he said.

And, in an attempt to stir up some optimism, he told the representatives: "Each of us has a vital role to play in the general election and we must campaign with the unwavering belief that we can win."

It is a difficult message to put across - but William Hague is certain to touch on the same issues and give the same warning about a second Labour term.

There will be plenty of Labour bashing, particularly over law and order, public spending, Europe and - in the wake of the attack on the government by former Ofsted boss Chris Woodhead - education.

Inclusive

There will also be renewed attempts to paint the party as inclusive and to draw a line under the last Tory administration.

If recent reports are correct, parliamentary candidates have even been told to limit their use of the word Conservative, in favour of "we" - presumably in an attempt to distance the opposition from the old divided and sleaze-hit party.

But with unemployment, inflation and interest rates all falling, it will be difficult to make much political capital out of the economy.

It will also be difficult for shadow ministers to take too electioneering a tone with the foot-and-mouth crisis still overshadowing everything else.

The crisis has already taken much of the urgency out of the event.

Tories were gearing up for a definite May election and a possible April poll.

But there is mounting speculation that both may now be off the agenda.

Pre-election pace

It would be possible for Mr Blair to postpone any poll on 3 May, along with the local elections that day until June or even the autumn.

Most still believe he will stick with May, but the uncertainty makes it difficult for the opposition to keep up the pre-election pace.

So Mr Hague has an uphill battle ahead of him on Sunday.

He will want to deliver a forward-looking, optimistic and invigorating speech.

But it remains to be seen whether the party faithful can be persuaded that victory really is within their grasp.

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See also:

01 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Doubt over elections date
28 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair's election dilemma
15 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Labour gathers for election launchpad
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