Embattled 'Loyal Opponent'

Hague faces popular Labour government in Britain, and a rough time at party meeting.

Senior figures in Britain's Conservative Party are beginning to wonder if they blundered in picking the youthful William Hague to lead them.

They doubt whether Mr. Hague has the qualities to play his constitutional role as opposition leader. Britain's system works best when the opposition party in Parliament is able to pose a credible challenge to the government on key issues.

Hague's title is "Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition." Anyone in his post is expected to have leadership qualities that would enable him or her to become prime minister at short notice.

Hague is encountering criticism that he is a political lightweight, out of tune with his party.

With Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's approval rating soaring after five months in office, Hague is heading for what promises to be a testing at the Conservative Party's annual conference the first week of October. That gathering follows the end of September Labour Party conference at which Blair demonstrated a tight grip on his party.

Even Lord Parkinson, the Tory veteran Hague named as Conservative Party chairman in June, is reportedly uneasy about a series of alleged blunders Hague has made since succeeding former Prime Minister John Major, who resigned as party leader after the May 1 general election, which Labour won in a landslide.

Hague may also suffer embarrassment at the party conference in Blackpool, England, when results of a vote on his leadership are announced. Soon after being chosen leader by his fellow Conservative members of Parliament (MPs), he invited party activists to cast ballots confirming him in the post. Party workers say many party members abstained rather than support their new leader.

Before the party conference, Hague let it be known that he favors reform of the House of Lords, even though the Conservatives opposed any change to the upper chamber of Parliament during the campaign. On Sept. 29, the Marquess of Hertford, a senior Conservative peer, called Hague's U-turn "unfortunate" and "unwise."

In mid-September, veteran Conservative MP Alan Clark, who represents the well-to-do London constituency of Kensington and Chelsea, accused Hague of "bringing in management consultants to reorganize the party." Mr. Clark, a distinguished historian, said the new leader was "too inexperienced."

In another apparent misjudgment in September, Hague accused Blair of trying to make political capital out of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In a widely reported TV interview Hague said Blair had leaked confidential advice given to Buckingham Palace during the period of mourning to "put the government in a good light and the royal family in a bad light." Hague said Blair's actions had been "shabby."

But in an unusual move, the royal family distanced itself from Hague, denying that the prime minister had acted improperly. Days later Francis Halewood, the Conservative Party's director of communications, abruptly resigned. Sources close to Mr. Halewood said he had stepped down after criticizing Hague's attack.

Hague has promised to "listen hard" to grass-roots opinion and has called for the party to modernize itself. It promises to be an uphill struggle.

A spokesman at the Conservative Party's headquarters in London has confirmed that paid rank-and-file membership has fallen from around 1 million when Margaret Thatcher became party leader, to 100,000 today. Labour has 400,000 paid members.

On union with Europe - the issue that split the Conservative Party under Mr. Major - Hague may be in trouble too.

He was elected Conservative leader with the support of Baroness Thatcher and has since hewed to a skeptical line on membership of the European Union. Last month former pro-European Union senior MP Hugh Dykes announced that he could no longer support Hague's policies and joined the Liberal Democrat Party.

Part of Hague's problem is that he is perceived to have a boyish image and lacks the gravitas associated with top politicians.

In August, he attracted criticism from the media and his party by appearing at a London carnival wearing a baseball cap printed with his name. Hague pointed out that he is balding and that it was a sunny day. But nobody appears to have been impressed.

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