Britain's Anti-Blair Still Trying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Conservative Party leader William Hague made his way through the flock of the faithful at a lunchtime rally Tuesday and an emcee introduced "the next prime minister of Britain," even many of his supporters let out an involuntary guffaw.

The conservative Times of London newspaper had just thrown its support to the Labor Party for the first time ever, endorsing Prime Minister Tony Blair for a second term. The nation's leading betting house, Ladbrokes, had already closed its book on Thursday's election and said it had begun paying out on a Labor victory.

Even Hague, after presenting an ambitious plan Monday for his first days in office, had warned of the dangers of a Labor landslide.

"Well, he's trying hard," offered Tory voter Graham Gingell, 62.

Trying to the bitter end in a race he is said to be losing by between 13 and 20 percentage points.

Hague is undaunted, as he has been throughout a campaign in which the bald politician in Savile Row suits is simultaneously mocked as Britain's oldest 40-year-old and portrayed in cartoons as a fetus.

He rattled off a litany of reasons that British voters should turn their backs on Labor after four years and return power to the party of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: Labor is all spin, no delivery. It has raised taxes, overwhelmed doctors and teachers with bureaucracy, gone soft on crime and neglected rural Britons, he said, barely drawing a breath. Now, it threatens to turn over more powers to Europeans in Brussels.

"We have two days to make sure we keep the pound," Hague said of the British currency, drawing applause in this Oxfordshire town's market square.

It was a mighty effort in a district of Parliament considered to be a safe Conservative seat until 1997, when Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, took it away in the electoral drubbing that ended 18 years of Tory rule.

But clearly it was not enough.

"I hope he knocks the Labor majority back," said Tory voter Peter Dixon, 47. "Realistically, it's too big a hurdle for the Conservatives to get back in. Look at the supporters here, the blue-rinse brigade. . . . My children are more with the Liberal Democrats."

Hague, whose mother gave him a membership in the Conservative Party for his 15th birthday, is an Oxford-educated Yorkshireman who speaks with a nasal, northern accent. He was 36 and a relatively inexperienced politician in 1997 when he assumed the leadership of a party in shambles after voters booted the Tories out of power and gave Labor 418 seats in the 659-member House of Commons. But he was as doggedly optimistic then as he is today.

He was selected as a center-right leader and reorganized the party to make it more modern. He proved an able speaker who frequently outwitted Blair during the weekly questioning of the prime minister in the House of Commons.

But he has veered right on many issues, such as crime, immigration and particularly European integration--the last a concern that still divides the party. Critics charge that in the last four weeks, as in the last four years, Hague has appealed to the Tories' core rather than expanding their base.

That seemed to be the case here in Abingdon.

"I am against joining the euro [currency] and I think that Europe really wants a superstate," said supporter Amie Barnes, 21, an Oxford student of modern history. "The Tory party is the only party really investing their spirit and time behind the pound."

Two of Hague's main problems are not of his own making. One is that Blair's party has moved to the right on many economic issues, stealing the Tories' policies out from under them.

In endorsing Blair on Tuesday, the Times said: "After only four years, Labor has consolidated many elements of Thatcherism. The central tenets of the economic settlement of the 1980s--a fierce resistance to inflation, a recognition that taxation at a certain level inflicts more harm than good and a distrust of trade union power--are further entrenched today than they were four years ago."

The Financial Times, Britain's equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, also endorsed Blair on Tuesday.

Another problem for Hague is that while many centrist voters may not be thrilled with Blair or the slow progress his government has made on improving public services, they are willing to give him another four years to keep trying. If the Tories had 18 years, Labor should have eight to show what it can do, the thinking goes.

"They've been slow fulfilling their promises, but I'd like to see them in for another term," said first-time voter Emma Hughes, 19.

The kind of campaign he has run has also cost Hague, however. Not only has he been predicting victory and defeat at the same time, but he has focused on the issues of Europe--opposing the power of the European Union government in Brussels and the prospect of joining the euro--and on lowering taxes by more than $11 billion. Both routinely rank low on lists of voter concerns.

Furthermore, critics say that Hague, a fitness buff and a blue belt in judo, has failed to come across as an approachable candidate to whom average voters can relate. While his politics may be closer to the Republicans, personally he is more like Al Gore.

In an interview with the staunchly conservative Sunday Telegraph, Hague defended his restrained personality, saying he is uncomfortable with public displays of emotion.

"Calm, cool deliberation has been more useful in this job so far than bursting into tears," Hague said. "People will have to make up their own minds. If they want someone who is weak, emotional, brittle, I would not be suitable. If they want someone who is the opposite of those things, they've found the right man."

Robert Shrum, a prominent American media consultant advising Blair, said that Hague is seen by voters not as weak so much as disconnected.

"They think he's detached from their lives," Shrum said. "He doesn't have a language that identifies with their lives."

In an opinion poll published Tuesday in the Independent newspaper, 22% of respondents said their impression of Hague had improved since the start of the campaign--but 34% said they have a worse view of him now.

The risk for Hague is that the Tories will do worse Thursday than in the cataclysm of 1997, when they won only 165 seats in the House of Commons--their worst showing since 1906. If that is the case, Hague is likely to face a stiff challenge for leadership of his party from both its more moderate and its hard-line wings.

Thatcher has warned of an "elective dictatorship" if Labor wins a landslide majority. And Hague says the election is not over until it's over.

Voter David Green, who cast his ballot for the Conservatives last time, thinks it is.

"The country's in pretty good shape," said Green, 23, a Web site developer. "I see no huge reason why I shouldn't vote for Tony Blair and no huge reason why I should vote for Hague."

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Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report.

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