William Hague has to be one of the most charming men in the Cabinet. Today, rather than attacking his Lib Dem colleagues for being ‘woolly’, as Philip Hammond did, the Foreign Secretary made the case for a majority Conservative government by saying quite politely, at the end of a long list of British foreign policy achievements, ‘And all that in a Coalition: just think what we could accomplish on our own’. Delegates loved that.
But there was one interesting point in his speech that delegates may in time love a little less as its implications become clearer. It was in the section on European reform. Hague told delegates:
‘When David Cameron set out his vision for real change in Europe he warned that he’d be denounced as a heretic. But I can tell you that Europe needs heresy and his heresy is spreading.
‘People used to think there was only one destination – a federal Europe – and the only question was whether you got there in the fast lane or slow lane. They don’t think that any more.Governments across Europe are talking about power coming back to the countries of Europe. That is something new.’
He followed that with a list of the things that Britain has already achieved in Europe: the EU budget, not budging on the rebate or on bailouts, and the referendum lock. But there was no mention of renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe, save the two-speed system under which certain countries could opt out of ‘ever-closer union’. Hague had focused on reforming Europe as a whole: something that is important, too, but it is very different to securing a specific, special settlement for Britain. The chances of securing the kind of reform in Europe that many in the Conservative party long for are slim: they want a renegotiation that removes Britain from many of the policies and institutions that they believe constrict this country. Instead, Hague seemed to be talking about reforms that many governments in Europe would support. These might be welcome, but they won’t be enough to satisfy Eurosceptics in the Tory party.