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William Hague speech at Conservative Spring Forum

"The headlines say it all, you might think. In the last fifteen months no one can doubt any longer that the Conservative party has begun its journey back to power.

We have set the pace, made the news, won elections and topped the polls - and after a decade and a half in the doldrums that feels good.

I feel I have a lot in common with most people here, and I want to thank you, because when we went through its darkest days we kept our party intact and our hopes alive for the recovery in our fortunes that is now under way.

We emerged with three new and powerful forces on our side. The first was the thousands of additional councillors, making us once again the largest party of local government, proving time and again that the natural home of strong and responsible civic leadership is in the Conservative party.

The second was the increasing public awareness of the true nature of the Labour Government they have endured for the last ten years, cynical, manipulative and deceitful, endlessly trumpeting improvements to services which never seem to arrive while always concealing the tax rises which each year of Gordon Brown has brought without fail.

And the third was the most powerful of all. It is the force of our own knowledge and awareness of ourselves, and our utter conviction that the transformation of our party was both possible and necessary, and that to serve the millions of people who hope and long for a change at the next election our need to change ourselves was nothing short of a national duty.

And so, as David Cameron has called on us, to serve our local communities, to take part in real social action, to defend our environment, to work out policies for a new century, and to welcome into our ranks people who have never voted Conservative before we have all responded.

I have responded by saying that when a leader comes along who has the best prospects in a generation to take our party back to government asks me to help him do so, then I must do so. You have responded by saying that if a part of our transformation is the adoption of many more candidates from among the brightest women in our country then you must do so. Now you have chosen the highest proportion of women candidates we have ever known, and I say to you solemnly, that must, must, must go on.

And that goes too for the ever expanding number of ethnic minority candidates. It was under my leadership that the first British Asian MEPs were elected - in the Conservative cause. Now I am proud that names like Priti Patel, Mark Clarke, Wilfred Emanuel Jones, Paul Uppal, Zahid Iqbal and Alok Sharma head the lists of candidates in highly winnable seats, and I will be even more proud when these are the names of our members of parliament.

For me the great thing about this process, this transformation, is that, actually, the headlines do not tell the story - not the whole story. For they have not yet captured either the excitement or the determination with which the mission to change our party and its fortunes is being pursued.

I feel every day what only those who work with David Cameron every day can see - for when I look around the table at him and my senior colleagues, I have never felt part of a team so cohesive or determined to support each other.

And to let you into some of the excitement and determination I feel about what we are doing, just come with me for a moment on a couple of typical days - one a few weeks ago when I called in at Leeds university student union and found hundreds of students eager and willing to listen to a Conservative Shadow Foreign secretary talk for as long as wanted about climate change, globalisation, global poverty and everything else. When I had finished a great mob of them came out canvassing with me, to the alarm of local residents who thought something must be seriously wrong.

So when some commentators write that the Conservative party should simply stick to its well-worn grooves, I say they're wrong. I say the challenges we face are so great, that party loyalties among younger voters are so weak, and that the failure of Labour across the board is so absolute, that the time has indeed come for us to fight with as much confidence for a cleaner environment and a better health service as we have always fought for strong defence and fairer tax. That our task is to show that social responsibility, bringing out the best in families and communities and not just relying on the state, is the only way to face the great social and environmental crises of our time.

And when I say that the failure of Labour is absolute, that brings me to another typical day. Yes, it's the day each month when I have the great privilege of questioning the Deputy Prime Minister at the despatch boxes of the House of Commons.

It's not normally about foreign policy. The time he said he had come back from the 'Balklands' has put paid to that.

Sometimes it's about post offices, since he is in charge of co-ordinating government policy on that subject, with the result that 4,000 of them have closed since Labour came to power.

But a few months ago I asked him a simple question. The question, the answer, and the real answer, tell you much of what you need to know about this Government.

The question was, since Gordon Brown in his first budget took £5 billion from the pension funds of the nation, what is the total cumulative amount now? This is not of course, as easy as it looks, not just ten times five, because there is all the interest and all the dividends that pensioners would have earned which has also been lost.

And the answer was, basically, 'you tell me the answer'. Well, there are two problems with that. One is that ministers are paid to answer questions in the House of Commons and after the next general election we will be only too pleased to answer them instead - but until then it's their job. The second problem is that John Prescott either knew the answer and did not want to reveal it or genuinely had no idea of the extent of Labour's damage to pension funds, and I don't know which is more worrying.

Eventually I did give him the answer, whereupon he, somewhat bizarrely, asked me for….the answer. Well the answer, according to the experts, is that the truly colossal sum of £100 billion has now been lifted from pension funds by the Chancellor. That means that those students at Leeds University can never enjoy the strength of occupational pension provision their parents enjoyed. And I do not believe that any man who did that to them should be our Prime Minister.

If our country had, like a company, a balance sheet, it would show that that £100 billion had been removed from its assets. And it would also show, with the vast growth of public sector pensions at the same time, that even bigger numbers had been added to the liabilities. If someone did that to a company there is no way you would ever call them prudent. And if they spent all the money without improving the public services it was given to you would call them utterly incompetent instead.

That is why we are not only excited by what we can achieve but determined to remove a Government which, in the light of the immense, insidious long-term damage it is doing to our country, is one of the worst of modern times.

And it is why we are not only performing the role of the opposition, but also preparing the policies of the next Conservative Government. We have already made the direction of many of those policies very clear, and whether they be removing many of the distorting targets that plague the NHS or shifting taxation from families to pollution, they are policies that fit perfectly the long conservative belief in freedom with responsibility.

Part of my job is to prepare our foreign policy. Sometimes that means supporting the Government, as we did this week over the necessary decision to replace for another generation our nuclear deterrent. Not for the first time in this parliament, ministers faced by a resurgent Labour left were only able to carry their policy with Conservative votes.

Sometimes it means urging the Government to do more. Today I urge them to do their utmost in every international forum to help the people of Zimbabwe emerge from their nightmare. As Conservatives we are always conscious of the limits to what governments, however good, can achieve on their own. But the Mugabe regime, in the poverty and desolation it has brought to a fertile land, has shown there is no limit to the harm that governments can do even to their own people.

It is still work in progress, but I have so far set out five principal and enduring themes. The first, and central one, is that after a decade of sofa-style decision making in Downing Street, arguably leading to serious mistakes in the conduct of foreign affairs, David Cameron and I are determined to see the restoration of proper Cabinet Government. In the conflicts of recent years, our armed forces have never let us down. It is vital that the machinery of government never lets them down.

That also means learning from past mistakes, and it is very clear that serious mistakes have been made in the course of the occupation of Iraq. Those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq, just like those who opposed it, must do our utmost to ensure that lessons are learned for the future: that is why we favour a Privy Council inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war and its aftermath, and if the Government does not announce such an inquiry in the coming months we will table a motion in the House of Commons requiring them to do so.

Our second theme is the effective management of the relationship with the United States of America. Our goal is not to distance ourselves from the United States - it will remain our indispensable partner in diplomacy, intelligence and security - but it is our goal to recover the art of managing the relationship well and making it one of permanent friendship coupled with honest criticism.

Thirdly, the extraordinarily rapid changes in the distribution of economic and political power in the world means that we will have to shift more of our weight to the relationships of the Asia/Pacific region, at the same time focusing much increased attention on the many friendly nations of the Middle East. We have called for a concerted national effort, pursued consistently over many years and across parties, to elevate our cultural, economic, diplomatic and parliamentary links with many of the countries of the Gulf - for while we are engaged in a struggle against international terrorism we must ensure we are not engaged in a clash of civilisations.

Fourth, we have to help global and multilateral institutions to reform. The UN needs urgent change; NATO needs galvanising so that it is not always British, American and Canadian forces who have to face the greatest dangers. And EU leaders should listen to their people and step back from centralisation. We will be the advocates of Europe's reform, joining with others to fight for a Europe that opens up trade, becomes more competitive and safeguards the environment, while recognising that it does not have too little power over its nation states - it has too much.

And fifth, in all these actions we must uphold the basic values of our society. The followers of Al-Qaeda are motivated by contempt for western life. Our efforts to combat them will only succeed if we uphold the strongest attributes of our society as virtues we believe in. That means a strong attachment to human rights, a belief in the rule of law, the defence of political freedom, the promotion of economic liberalism, and humanitarian intervention when it is sensible and practical.

These are broad themes, but they are ones which will endure. Our thinking on foreign policy is an example of the work we are doing across the board: learning from the events of recent years with humility and patience; utilising the talents and ideas of people throughout our party and beyond it: adopting goals which are realistic and are consistent with each other, and ensuring that we come to power with a clear sense of what we will do. Continued over the coming months and years, such work will show not only that we can win but that we deserve to do so; not only that we have a failing government but that we could have a successful one; and not only that we have served our country well in the past but that we can do so again in the future.

And so to you, who have shared like me in all our defeats and setbacks, I say that I hope you now share with me the rising excitement and anticipation of what we can achieve with the next Conservative Government.

The headlines are good, but what is even better is what lies behind them: a party that once again looks and feels like a party of national leadership, and that will soon be ready to provide the people of Britain with the new Government that many millions of them want to see."

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