How stands our Party now after the Conference?
Confident and in far better shape than would have seemed possible six months ago. Whatever else William Hague does, or does not do, he has at least give the Party hope – hope that it came make a comeback after the most shattering and demoralising defeat since all women as well as men were given the vote in 1928.
I never cease to be amazed at the pundits who say we must broaden our appeal to this faction or that faction. The Conservative Party has always had a broad appeal – how else could it have been returned to office so often in the last century? It has always picked up about 30% of the ‘working class’ (for want of a better word) vote and many trade unionists support us. Of course, the terms ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’ are becoming less and less relevant these days, particularly with the decline of heavy industries like coal, steel and shipbuilding.
Many derided and despised Lady Thatcher saying that she made a ‘god’ out of greed. But the very people who were saying this already had themselves many material possessions (including second homes in the country) and, in some cases, the benefits of private education and private medical treatment. What is wrong with trying to give people a stake in society? The problem comes when you over commit yourself as was the case with people who took out mortgages and found themselves trapped in ‘negative equity’. Three years into a Labour government with the economy in good shape we are given to understand that there are 100,000 more people in poverty than was the case in May 1997. But nobody, and certainly not our London metropolitan elite seems to be worrying about it.
The one great asset the Party has is that it is not bound by any fixed ideology (we were not called the stupid party for nothing). Of course, we believe in the free enterprise system and have general unshakeable principles but we are always ready to adapt to changing circumstances. In the past, Tories initially opposed the setting up of the N.H.S. but when they returned to power in the early nineteen fifties did not attempt to turn the clock back and reverse what had been set up. It was never starved of money (but like every other institution always wanted more). The problem now is that more and more diseases are becoming treatable (and naturally require a lot more money). Everybody, particularly those on the left, talks about Aneurin Bevan and the debt we all owe to him. I’m sure he would be amazed at the kind of medical advances that have been made in the last 30 years – heart and lung transplants, cures for some cancers and so on – were he to come back today.
In my own patch, we opposed the setting up on the National Assembly claiming that it was not really needed (and a 50% turn out with a 50.3% ‘Yes’ vote was hardly a ringing endorsement) but now it is here, we want it to work and are determined to make it so. Our nine members come from all walks of life and area making a valuable contribution to discussion and debate.
But to return to our Conference. We had our usual array of star speakers; William Hague, himself; Ann Widdecombe (who unfortunately got carried away by her own rhetoric) and Michael Portillo. I had thought that Neil Kinnock’s remarkable conversion to be a pro European in extremis was the greatest since St. Paul on the road to Damascus but Michael Portillo runs Kinnock a close second. We have a new look, touchy feely, I’m the friend of minority groups, Portillo, telling us all about his experiences during the two and a half years he was away from the House of Commons. Many think it was a "Look, I’m available if anything should happen to William" speech and it did not dwell much on the economy or taxation but any politician who aspires to high office has to fire up his own troops so I would not blame him for that. When he was selected for Kensington & Chelsea last year, I wrote to him wishing him well and I received a short reply from him in his own hand thanking me for my good wishes. Gestures like this always go down well with the Party faithful and I was pleased that with so many other commitments he had taken the trouble to write.
For me, the best part of the Conference was William Hague’s question and answer session held late on the Tuesday morning. He was witty and displayed a depth and breadth of knowledge which I found quite remarkable. Long gone are the days when the Leader descended on the Conference, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, on the Friday or Saturday afternoon, made an hour long speech and this disappeared.
Many commentators have written William Hague off comparing him with Neil Kinnock. I have said before that I do not think the analogy is apt. I always thought that Kinnock’s problem was that he was trying to be something he really was not. If you passionately believe in nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and think unilateral disarmament is a good policy, you cannot suddenly change your beliefs overnight – the electorate simply won’t wear it and you will be accused of political expediency. William Hague has never changed his beliefs.
So how can we sell Hague to the electorate at large and convince them he has the ability to become Prime Minister? It is going to be difficult – baseball caps and heavy drinking when a youth do leave a lasting impression – but it is not impossible. He is a down to earth Yorkshire man who has never forgotten his roots, he has a brilliant academic record (a first in PPE from Magdalen College, Oxford) he went to the local comprehensive (after a terrible first term in Ripon Grammar School), he uses the National Health Service, he believes in the supremacy of Parliament, he wants government to be more accountable, he has a stable marriage and is a family man through and through. He is always on top of his brief, enjoys argument and debate in the House of Commons. He has held ministerial jobs in Social Security and entered the Cabinet, at 34, as Secretary of State for Wales – the youngest Cabinet Minister since Harold Wilson forty five years earlier
He must, surely be buoyed up by the victories to date. We have many more councillors than three years ago and, thanks to a well-run campaign in June 1999, have the largest number of MEPs. Many sneer at this achievement saying that the poll was only 25% - but at the end of the day it was a real poll with real people voting not something dreamt up by the opinion polls.
It is because of people like William Hague that I am a member of our Party and for the first time in nine General Elections I shall offer to help our local constituency out by delivering leaflets or acting as a teller on General Election day. William Hague has time on his side – he won’t be 40 until next year – and it is up to all our members, supporters and friends to deliver a good result for him. And, surprise, surprise, I will have a woman candidate to vote for.
One final word about minorities – we hear a lot about them. I would have thought that minority groups, e.g. gays, single parents, ethnics, etc. seldom vote on a single issue. We have a lot of policies which can make a broad appeal to them.
A single mother is more likely to ask what are we going to do about the failing comprehensive in the inner city which her teenage daughter attends rather than whether we think her (the mother) particular life style is appropriate.
William Hague has brought the Conservative Party back to life when every commentator had written us off. He has had to endure the scorn of the London metropolitan elite who despise his values and what he stands for while at the same time having an "I’m all right Jack" attitude. (No wonder the so called socialist "I can’t vote for any other Party" Lady Penny Mortimer sends her children to private school.)
He may never gain the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. But even if he doesn’t he will be held in great affection by the Party and in the country. Sir Alec Douglas Home served as Edward Heath’s Foreign Secretary after standing down from the leadership in 1965 and afterwards returned to the House of Lords as Lord Home of the Hirsel. He always received a rapturous reception at Conference.
Every one of us will be willing Hague to become the next Prime Minister. Every Conservative Leader since 19232 has eventually become Prime Minister. William Hague is surely as good as the present incumbent who believes in nothing in particular and who would rather listen to his spin-doctors than visit his own supporters in the inner cities or the failing industrial towns.
So whenever the General Election comes, in May or October next year, let us all go out and give it our best shot. We owe it to William Hague, if no-one else.