British Conservatives seek to seize the middle ground

Embarassed in debacle over House of Lords reform, Tory leader Hague tries to revamp party's aloof image.

Britain's Conservatives are taking a fresh look at their party's political and intellectual roots.

Heading an opposition that continues to languish in the opinion polls and is heavily outnumbered and often outmaneuvered in Parliament, party leader William Hague has asked two of his brightest lieutenants to lead what promises to be an uphill exercise.

The aim, Mr. Hague has told his deputy, Peter Lilley, and David Willetts, shadow education secretary, is to find a formula that will recapture the middle ground of British politics. This will mean updating the policies of a party that dominated British politics for most of the past century, but that many analysts now perceive as having lost its way.

In the May 1997 general election, Labour Party leader Tony Blair swept to power by convincing the nation that his "New Labour" had abandoned the shibboleths of state socialism and embraced the enterprise economy. The strategy yielded Labour 419 seats in the 659-seat House of Commons.

Hague's aides say he wants to work the same kind of magic on the Conservative Party to win back middle-class voters who deserted last year by the millions. The youthful Hague will have his work cut out for him in challenging Blair, whose popularity has barely wavered after 20 months in office. In the arenas of domestic and foreign policy, his scope for reform appears limited.

Mr. Lilley and Mr. Willetts can be counted on to stand by Hague's wariness of the European Union and his opposition to its single currency, which will be adopted by 11 EU nations Jan 1. Opinion polls continue to show a majority of Britons as suspicious of the euro as Hague himself.

At the same time, Labour under Blair has adopted several of the Conservatives' traditional policies, such as industrial privatization. As a result, Tory reformers are likely to be handicapped in their search for new ideas in the economic and social fields.

As he searches for a way ahead for his party, these constraints have forced Hague to adopt a strategy of what he calls "listen and learn before going on to lead." Lilley will travel the country holding "Listening to Britain" public meetings with voters who switched allegiances. Sometimes he is surprised by what they say. "At one meeting I expected people to call for better public transport," Lilley says. "Instead they wanted better facilities for private cars."

Lilley aides say many voters who deserted in 1997 explain that they saw the party as arrogant and out of touch.

A compilation of voter concerns, to be called "Agenda for Britain," (similar to departing House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract With America) is planned for release next year. Party workers say Willets, intellectual dubbed "Two Brains" by his colleagues, will be its main author.

Unless a political calamity befalls the Blair government, however, few believe the Conservatives can regroup sufficiently to win the next general election due in three years.

Nor is Hague's own grip on his party as secure as he or his colleagues would like. This was demonstrated last month, when he collided with the Conservative majority in the House of Lords over the Blair government's planned reform of the mainly hereditary upper chamber.

Hague's embarrassment began when Viscount Cranbourne, the Conservatives then-leader in the Lords, struck a deal with Blair that would allow 91 hereditary peers to keep their voting rights for a time while more extensive reforms went ahead. When Hague heard about the deal, he fired Cranbourne. Later, however, he had to accept the deal because most Conservative peers preferred it.

Longtime political analyst Alan Watkins says, "Hague failed to notice that Conservative peers were interested in a compromise. Instead of knocking Blair out over Lords reform, he ended up on the canvas himself."

Hague's position as party leader appears secure for the moment, largely because at present there are no obvious candidates to challenge him.

Meanwhile, Michael Portillo, a former senior Conservative minister who lost his seat in last year's election, is said to be searching for a safe constituency. Widely seen as a forceful right-winger with genuine charisma, Mr. Portillo could be well placed to mount a challenge to Hague. If the Conservatives lose the next election, they may find themselves with a new political agenda - but also with a pressing urge to find someone else to lead them and implement it.

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