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Tuesday, 6 October, 1998, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Hague unlikely to silence Euro-critics
William Hague
William Hague faces a tricky time in Bournemouth
By BBC News Online's Nick Assinder

As Tony Blair flies out to China, there will be some uncharitable voices who will claim it represents the most expensive spoiling tactic ever employed by a political leader.

The four-day trip just happens to coincide with the Tory party conference, and the cynics claim the timing is a deliberate attempt to overshadow the rally.

Mr Blair will be seen talking to political leaders and taking walkabouts in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing - including the Forbidden City.

He is taking a large delegation of businessmen with him, including the president of the Confederation of British Industry, Sir Clive Thompson.

And a large party of journalists will be in tow to beam every picture opportunity back to Britain.

Battle for media coverage

Meanwhile, the Tories will be in Bournemouth for their 115th conference, still in the wake of their worst ever electoral humiliation. For many it will be year zero.

The competition for media coverage between the two events will be fierce and Mr Blair's press chief Alastair Campbell is not averse to ringing up journalists and telling them which he thinks is the best story of the day.

As a wrecking tactic it will undoubtedly have some effect. But there are some in the Labour party who are questioning its wisdom.

Not only will it be hugely expensive, but they fear it might actually deflect attention away from the inevitable splits and rows that will erupt in Bournemouth.

Hiding the splits?

Despite William Hague's victory in the ballot of party members on the euro, he has failed to stop the arch euro supporters, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, from voicing their opinions at every turn.

The two men will hammer home their message whenever they get the chance and Mr Hague's claim that they will only be speaking for themselves will be meaningless.

Everybody knows there is a substantial Europhile tendency within the party. By turning the issue into one of personal authority, Mr Hague has ensured they will vote with him in the ballot, but he will not silence them.

Those divisions are certain to erupt at the conference, both from the conference floor and at fringe meetings.

There are also likely to be rows over the opposition's failure to mount any effective challenge to Labour.

Failure of personality and policies

Mr Hague is a good Commons performer and regularly embarrasses the prime minister during their weekly question time confrontations.

But he has entirely failed to make any impact with the general public who still put him behind Paddy Ashdown in the recognition stakes.

Labour's opinion poll ratings may be slipping towards a more realistic level, but they are still way ahead of the Tories.

There will also be demands to know exactly where all the policies have gone.

Like Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have launched a fundamental policy review. But there will be precious few announcements at the conference.

Even the few weapons shadow ministers do have to launch at Labour - the economy, cronyism and political arrogance - are effectively neutered.

Memories are still too fresh of the previous Tory governments, riddled by sleaze, that presided over a devastating recession and which even former ministers have admitted became arrogant.

Land of Hope Not Glory?

William Hague is aware of all this and this year's conference will be a very different beast to previous ones.

The platform will be arranged in a radical new way to give the impression of a party listening and open debate will actually be encouraged - up to a point.

Mr Hague has even brought his speech forward to Thursday instead of the traditional Friday and all the old triumphalist flag waving and "Land of Hope and Glory" singing will be toned right down.

So Tony's trick may succeed in making the Tories look irrelevant, but it also risks backfiring by overshadowing the vision of a party desperately seeking a way back from the political wilderness.


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