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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 03:43 GMT 04:43 UK


UK Politics

Hague's make or break polls

Hague: looking for revival

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

For William Hague, "Super Thursday" was always likely to be a make or break day.

He entered the election contests with his personal opinion poll ratings at an all time low and with his party split not only on Europe but, thanks to the mishandled "dump Thatcherism" row, on social policy as well.

Virtually since the day he was elected in June 1997 - at 36, the youngest Tory leader in more than 200 years - his leadership came under question.

The rival wings of the party, whose battles over Europe had helped lose them the election, continued to slug it out in public and, by the end of his first year he had failed to heal the rifts or make any headway against Tony Blair.

He hardened party policy on the single currency in a move aimed at placating the right-wingers on his back benches.

But that, inevitably only infuriated the pro-European "big beasts" like Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke - always seen as the most potent threat to his leadership.

In a high-risk attempt to finally end the squabbling, he took the unprecedented step of holding a ballot of all party members last autumn asking them to back his policy on Europe, which ruled out taking Britain into the euro for a decade.

Vote of confidence

The left claimed the entire operation was a stunt because, by effectively turning it into a vote of confidence in his leadership, ordinary members were bound to back him. And they did, overwhelmingly.

Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke immediately signalled that, while Mr Hague was insisting the argument was now settled, they would not keep quiet.

They have only done so in the past few months to limit any potential damage during the election campaigns.

After weathering that row, Mr Hague then blundered into another one over Labour's plans to reform the House of Lords.

He was dramatically wrong-footed by the prime minister during question time when he revealed Tory Lord Cranborne had done a secret deal with Downing Street over the proposals.

Mr Hague looked foolish and immediately sacked the Peer, sparking another revolt within his own ranks which saw a spate of resignations by other Tory Lords.

New split

Most recently, of course, he opened a deep new division by encouraging his deputy Peter Lilley to make his now infamous speech which appeared to be abandoning the central tenets of Thatcherism.

In fact, Mr Lilley was only repeating what Mr Hague and others, most notably right-winger Michael Portillo, had been saying for months - that the "new" Tories had to present a more caring face and remind people they had never threatened to privatise health and education.

It all dramatically backfired, of course, and left the Tories entering the "Super Thursday" elections in complete disarray.

Throughout all this, Mr Hague was personally developing into a hugely-successful Commons performer.

He regularly wiped the floor with Tony Blair during question time and, even on a bad day, seldom failed to land some good punches.

Many of those close to him believe has the right stuff to make a successful prime minister and insist he is doing the only thing open to him in the wake of the general election humiliation.

Others claim he simply hasn't got what it takes and that, when it has come to taking key strategic decisions, he has usually made the wrong choice.

His public image has never been good and his attempts to look more casual and "yoof" by wearing a baseball cap and holding shirt-sleeve-and-pullover love-ins with his colleagues simply proved a further embarrassment.

He has also come under fire for failing to use one of his greatest assets, his wife Ffion. His decision to appoint former Sunday Express editor Amanda Platell as his personal spin doctor was seen as a move to try and liven up his image.

But what he needed more than anything else was a bit of good news in the polls to put a spring in the step of his backbenchers.



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