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Saturday, 3 March, 2001, 18:41 GMT
Hague - the King of Harrogate?
William Hague
William Hague: The only game in town?
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

There was a bizarre moment at the end of the first day of the Tories' spring conference that spoke volumes about the entire event.

After listening to the opening speeches - including an unusually lacklustre performance by shadow chancellor Michael Portillo - William Hague walked off the platform.

As he did so, conference chairwoman Jean Serle declared: "The leader is leaving the platform."

It was an accidental replay of the famous quote at the end of Elvis Presley's comeback concert in which the over-excited MC attempted to calm the screaming crowd with the phrase: "Elvis has left the building."

Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo: Unusually lacklustre
For a second, Harrogate had been transformed into Las Vegas and Hague had become the King.

And, particularly after Mr Portillo's speech, it is certainly the case that Mr Hague is the only act who can now inspire the party faithful. He is the only game in town.

And he knows that a lot is riding on his end-of-conference speech.

He clearly intends to deliver the speech of his leadership with a plea for his party faithful to take no prisoners in the looming general election battle.

Brutal campaign ahead

He will bring the Tories' weekend conference to a close with one of his most combative speeches ever.

He is expected to tell representatives that the poll is still due on 3 May and that they should be preparing themselves for one of the most brutal campaigns ever seen in Britain.

He will warn that a second Labour government could do irreparable damage to the very nature of Britain.

He will concentrate heavily on his campaign to keep the pound and will attack Tony Blair for selling the country out.

Controversial issues

Mr Hague will insist that, while Tony Blair may want a short, low-key campaign, he is not about to take his foot off the gas.

He will promise to increase the political temperature by continuing to raise controversial issues where he believes that is necessary.

And he will warn that a second Labour term could prove disastrous for Britain.

"Try to picture what our country would look like. Let me take you to a foreign land - to Britain after a second term of Tony Blair.

"The Royal Mint melting down pound coins as the euro notes start to circulate. Our currency and our ability to set our own interests rates gone forever.

"The Chancellor returning from Brussels carrying instructions to raise taxes still further. Control over our own taxes given away.

"Britain's forces have been committed to operations as part of the new European army outside Nato and to the dismay of the United States.

"The jail doors opening as thousands more serious criminals walk out early to offend again. Police morale at a new low.

"Letters arriving on doorsteps cancelling yet another round of hospital operations in the health service under a government that never delivers. That is Labour's Britain four years from now," he will say.

His speech will echo the words of shadow ministers throughout the two-day conference in Harrogate.

Apathy hopes

But he has a major task ahead of him in persuading his troops that there is a real battle ahead.

Most of the representatives gathered in Harrogate have little expectation that they can pull off a sensation and win the next election.

Even the most optimistic will privately admit they are pinning their hopes on a combination of massive apathy amongst Labour supporters and tactical, anti-government voting to give them any chance at the next poll.

What the Tories - and William Hague in particular - are really all about at the next election is slashing the government's majority.

Lacking pizzazz

No shadow minister or representative will openly admit to it, but the best they think they can achieve is reducing Labour's majority to double figures.

There was a great deal of pre-election rhetoric on the opening day of the conference with much of the rabble-rousing laid at the door of Mr Portillo.

He banged on about what a great prime minister Mr Hague would be, he tore into Labour's "tax and spend" policies and he mapped out Europe and retaining British sovereignty as a key battleground.

But his old pizzazz was notably lacking, leading many to once again question whether his heart is really in it any more.

So it will all be up to William Hague to provide the much-needed injection of enthusiasm to convince this audience that they really can pull off an election miracle.

Even Elvis might have had trouble with that one.

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See also:

03 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Portillo pledges tax match
09 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hague and Blair launch tax battle
05 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Tories pledge 8bn tax cuts
02 Jan 01 | UK Politics
All eyes on the election
18 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Labour gears up for May poll
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